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Gary Younge
Extreme prejudice

In this mythic terrain Fred Phelps, of Topeka (pop 122,377), Kansas, fits in and stands out. He fits in because he is a homophobe who, like most of the country, including the Bush administration, uses the Bible as the source of his bigotry. He stands out because, unlike most of the country, he pursues his agenda with a vicious zeal and animus that not even the White House could match. When Mr Phelps attended the funeral of Matthew Shephard, a young man beaten to a pulp in a homophobic attack, or those of prominent HIV sufferers, he took his "God hates fags" picket signs with him.

Phelp's granddaughter, Jael, inherited his intolerance. "The prescribed punishment for homosexuality in the Bible is death," she told the New York Times last week. "They are worthy of death, and those people who condone that action are just as guilty." Last week, Jael Phelps stood for election against the city's first and only openly gay city councilwoman, Tiffany Muller, in a primary. She also lobbied to defeat a local ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against lesbians and gays who work for the city. She lost on both counts, coming a distant last in the primary while the ordnance was passed 53% to 47%.

The victory was principally due to local factors. With the Phelpses in the frame, the vote became as much a referendum about rejecting flagrant bigotry as embracing equality. A statewide vote calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in April is expected to pass easily; Muller came second but enters April's runoff as the underdog. But the process by which it came about illustrates a national trend that has striking parallels with the civil rights period of the 50s and 60s, when Topeka was in the national spotlight.

Just over 50 years ago, an African American, Oliver Brown, tried to enrol his daughter, Linda, into the white junior school here. The local board of education refused to admit her. Brown, along with other parents facing similar problems across the country, objected in a suit that went all the way to the supreme court. In 1954, in a landmark ruling, the supreme court effectively outlawed segregation, in the now famous Brown v Board of Education.

The ensuing period sparked more than a decade of civil-rights activism that saw the most vicious racism and the most heroic anti-racism. It was an era in which the main political parties attempted to either disown or exploit these tensions, wavering between opportunism and prejudice when issues of principle were at stake, which bears comparison with recent developments in the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation.

Following two key court decisions in 2003 supporting gay rights - the supreme court's decision to strike down the sodomy laws, followed by the Massachusetts supreme court's legalisation of same-sex marriage - the religious right has been engaged in a huge anti-gay backlash on a national and local level. While the Democratic party has sat on its hands, the Republican Congress has exploited the issue as a means of galvanising its base and splitting the Democrats' core support. In November, 11 states passed constitutional bans on gay marriage.

Meanwhile, left to fend for themselves, lesbian and gay communities are becoming more confident, organised, sophisticated and vocal in their struggle for equality. Erin Norris led the campaign to back the ordinance in Topeka with a grassroots strategy. Eschewing television and radio advertising, they went door-to-door targeting and mobilising potential support. "If you can put a face on a human rights issue, then it can make a difference," she says. The lesbian and gay community in Topeka is becoming a key broker in local politics, providing crucial volunteers and funds for those who back equality.

'We're really fighting for our lives," says Norris. "We feel targeted, so we become really savvy really quickly." Norris says a local woman arrived at her house last week and told her she had been beaten up for having a "Vote Tiffany" sign on her lawn. "I felt really responsible," says Norris. "But she came to say she wanted another yard sign. It energised her to get more involved."

A similar mood of resilience and resistance has become evident across the country. In Spokane, Washington, where conservatives are preparing for a showdown over the proposed establishment of a gay business district, a gay businesswoman, Bonnie Aspen, told the Observer: "Bring it on. Spokane won't change without confrontation." As during the civil rights movement, such defiance is born from a mixture of strength in spirit and adversity in practice. "We've only been tolerated because we've remained silent," said Stephen Adams of Springfield, Missouri, after the state passed its gay marriage ban last year. "But we just can't be silent any more."

To compare these two struggles is not to equate them. To say they are the same would be ridiculous. It goes without saying that there are major differences between race and sexual orientation - and therefore homophobia and racism. It also goes without saying that the existence of many black lesbians and gays makes the binary opposition of the two issues redundant. To ignore the parallels would be no less ridiculous. The civil rights movement was not made from whole cloth. Nor were its achievements limited to the interests of African Americans. It was part of a narrative of extending human rights to those who had been denied them that helped remove discriminatory barriers for many, not least white women and Jews. Its roots, like its appeal, were universal. It drew inspiration from Gandhi (among others) and can give inspiration to the likes of Norris and other gay activists.

There are two main reasons why this comparison jars with many. The first is blatant homophobia. It is far easier to marginalise the lesbian and gay agenda if you can sever any association between it and other struggles for equality. The second is latent homophobia, which argues that such comparisons trivialise racism, as though the right to love who you want and still keep your job, your home and sometimes your life is a trifling matter.

Those who insist that one is worse than the other should remember that this is not a competition. Sadly, there is enough misery to go around. People like the Phelpses will make sure it stays that way. They don't need our help.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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