“I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.” — Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington was a black civil rights pioneer, but I’m going to talk about LGBT civil rights. Is it appropriate to compare gay civil rights to black civil rights? No. Is it natural to compare them? Yes.
This week, the NAACP endorsed full marriage equality. Previously, they had endorsed all rights up to, but not including, full marriage equality. Comparing this to President Obama’s endorsement weeks ago (and the tidal wave of mostly positive press it received), America has passed the tipping point on marriage equality. Within the next year, marriage rights (and a whole slew of other very important things) will come much quicker, I expect.
We have gotten by a long time on comparing our rights struggle with the one for black civil rights. I believe for this final push, it’s vital that we forge our own gay history and our own set of reasons why our equality is right, independent of this comparison.
It’s very easy to slap together a picture from today of assholes holding anti-gay signs with a picture from the 50’s of assholes holding anti-black signs. It’s also cheap.
However, to do this is very natural. I myself have written many posts in which I’ve used gay/black comparisons, and it’s something I’ve struggled with for a while. It feels like a shirt that ALMOST fits right.
It’s given our opponents a lot of cover. Maggie Gallagher loves to get on TV and yak about how we keep making this comparison, and oh how it makes her black minister friends FURIOUS! Brian Brown barrels on about how people can’t change their skin tone, but they can change their lifestyle. It forces a conversation about the eternally frustrating “Is gay a choice? / Can you not be gay anymore?” conversation.
This is where the comparison gets even trickier, where the road parts ways; The plight of a black person has been (mostly) external conflict. The plight of a gay person has been (mostly) internal conflict.
I’m going to get into trouble here, but please be patient and let me explain myself.
Black people were shipped here in chains, in deplorable conditions, starved and beaten. Whole families were separated and sold as livestock. Rapes and murders were commonplace. They weren’t considered people, so it wasn’t even considered murder. A war was fought with them as a centerpiece. 100 years after they were freed, they got a basic civil rights act passed through Congress.
Our history has been a horrible internal struggle. There have beatings, rapes and murders, yes.
Yet the torment we’ve faced has largely been through focused, unbearable social pressure. The evils we’ve struggled against have been governments, neighbors and family members convincing us that we don’t exist (or don’t have the right to exist). The beatings become physical when we dare to be ourselves. Transgendered people are especially brutalized and killed today– it happened last year in Hollywood, of all places! The event that fast-forwarded our visibility and acceptance was the AIDS epidemic, where the crime against us was one of neglect. Americans disrespect sex, so getting sympathy on that topic is difficult, even today.
When we compare gay civil rights to black civil rights in America, we walk a dangerous tightrope because we invite weighty comparisons between a long history of physical violence with a long history of emotional violence. And if there’s one topic America can’t stomach, it’s treating emotional violence seriously.
The consequences of emotional violence are not as easily quantified, but their effects bear awful fruit: self-hatred, self-punishment, depression, dysfunction and, a youth epidemic now, thoughts of suicide.
To talk about gay history is to talk about either emotions, love, nonconformity or the importance of a healthy sex life. An American quadruple threat.
Don’t get me wrong. Marriage equality IS a civil rights issue. It’s also a values issue, but not the way our opponents would have you believe. In coming out, we are trying to get people to place a value on emotional honesty. With marriage equality, we need them to place a value on nontraditional families. With queer, intersex and transgender rights, we need them to place a value on nonconformity and true selves.
These are issues that Americans have avoided for centuries; important issues whose time has come, not just for LGBT Americans but for straight Americans, too. America should keep domestic partnerships and civil unions long after marriage equality is achieved because nontraditional families are out there in all stripes and need representation.
My chief worry with comparing our struggle to black civil rights is that it will mute the need for these issues to be addressed. I don’t want us to achieve our goals for the wrong reasons.
What makes the gay movement special to itself is that we exist in every economic level, every culture, every country, every racial and religious background. TV and movies so far show us as affluent white men. That is far from who we are as a whole. If we can embrace this, I’m sure we can bridge the divide between gays and African-Americans that our opponents have tried to exploit and widen.