The folks who put together the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights didn’t necessarily have me in mind when they put quill to paper. Nor were they thinking of Mildred and Richard Loving, history’s most prominent interracial couple who fought and won for their right to marry in 1967. What they did have in mind was the immutable fact that we are all created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Which is a wonderful starting point.

Here’s another conversation starter: two thought-provoking billboards went up on either side of Interstate 26 on Monday. The billboards were created by AFFA, the Alliance for Full Acceptance. The crux of AFFA’s media message? Gay rights are civil rights.

The day he took office, President Barack Obama made an historic decision to include GLBT rights under his agenda for civil rights. In a recent speech before the Human Rights Campaign, NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond said, “When someone asks me, ‘Are gay rights civil rights?’ my answer is always, ‘Of course, they are.'”

He added, “It isn’t ‘special’ to be free from discrimination. It is an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship.”

Now some say that asserting that gay rights are civil rights is borrowing from someone else’s experience. Let me offer this: Doesn’t every succeeding generation fighting for equality draw inspiration from the one before?

The churning undercurrent of fear and ignorance is something we’ve all seen and heard before. It’s nothing but a means to distract people from the real issue. That is, whether we as a people will live up to our promise to treat all citizens with dignity and protect them equally under the law.

A few weeks ago at AFFA’s program meeting, the discussion centered around gay rights and civil rights. Susan Dunn was one of the speakers.

Ms. Dunn is an ACLU lawyer, Circular Congregational Church lay minister, and Charleston School of Law adjunct professor. During her insightful and inspirational talk, she read this excerpt from a letter in her father’s possession, which was sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson, warning against the passage of the civil rights bill (Dunn had found a copy of the letter in a file of her father’s after his death.):

“Mr. President, I hate sin, and this [the civil rights bill] which you are advocating is a sin, in that it would bring about the destruction of the Negro race through mixing black and white people. Marriage is the aim of some, and it will never do, and you should understand why the Christian is against the civil rights. I am not against the Negro people. I love them as we are commanded, as I love the white- or red-skinned people. If you persist in carrying out your present plans, you are bringing upon this nation and all people, because of your selfish desires, sure destruction.”

Sure destruction, huh?

Now, go back a few paragraphs, re-read the letter, and replace the word Negro with GLBT. Sound like anything you’ve heard in the last couple of years? There’s that churning undercurrent again.

The thing is, ignorance and discrimination come in many forms. Some are blatant, others subtle. But the minute you start talking in “us” and “them,” you can be certain the churning undercurrent has the upper hand.

It’s not my job to make anyone comfortable with the fact that I’m gay. My job is to do everything in my power to help guarantee the rights of all Americans, including the GLBT community. That means having the conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable. It means listening. It means writing letters, marching, and extending a hand.

Rights may be written on paper or etched on stone tablets, but until we come together to own them, they just sit there, waiting. They wait for women who want to vote. For the people of India to triumph over tyranny. For all who understand that love is a human experience, not a political statement.

As writer Ann Friedman said so eloquently, “That’s the thing about rights. You have to claim them.”