In the summer of 2006 I attended the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard. One of the guest presenters was 95-year-old Johnnie Carr, the woman who took over the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1956 after the successful Montgomery bus boycott when Martin Luther King, Jr. went on to form the Southern Christian Leadership Convention. Carr told stories and fielded questions. I’m not sure how the topic of gay people came up but at the mention of the word “homosexual” her face shriveled up and she moved her hand in a wide sweeping gesture, then exclaimed, “Those DISGUSTING people!”
She made some inaudible comments then said the word “DISGUSTING” again. She said this even though Bayard Rustin, the man who co-founded SCLC with King (shown together here), who assisted in the creation of the Committee on Racial Equality in 1942, organized the first freedom ride and the March on Washington, and helped King convert wholeheartedly to non-violence, was gay. I looked at Waldo Martin and Pat Sullivan, the two seminar leaders, and they looked away but, to their credit, they did not stop the tape recorder.
After Carr left and our group reconvened, I looked around and asked (it took no small amount of courage for me to raise this question and risk losing their respect or being seen as a troublemaker): “Did she really say that gay people were disgusting?” Everyone shrugged it off. An African American professor from North Carolina said, “Oh, that’s just her generation.” Martin replied, “She’s a devoted church lady, that’s just the way they see things.” I responded, “That doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
Now imagine someone lobbed the same spiteful word at a black person in 1955, at a time when key constitutional rights were not yet secured and violence or at least censure was always a risk. That person’s entire character would be defined as essentially racist. It would not be shrugged away, especially not now because we as a nation have come to understand the history and impact of bigotry on African Americans.
Would a newspaper or website run this article with this story and thereby run the risk of tainting the reputation of one of the great civil rights leaders? Is Carr’s reputation more important than the wave of anxiety and shame she triggered in me with her comments? Shouldn’t I be quiet? Am I simply being over-sensitive?
Understanding the sensitivity of the oppressed requires raising awareness. When I was growing up in blue collar Buffalo during the early 1970s busing was in full swing. Everyone talked about the violence at local P.S. 43. Fearing for the safety of their children, my parents sent their kids to Catholic school. I had to clean the hallways and bathrooms after hours (a job affectionately referred to as “the scum crew”) to help defray tuition costs. Years later when I was in graduate school, I told my middle class liberal friends about this. They all insisted my parents were racists and should have sent their kids to public school.
In Buffalo as in Boston, it was the poorest school districts that were subjected to busing edicts and the term “limousine liberals,” coined in 1969, became widespread. My family members were not racist but they did experience cognitive dissonance. They had black friends, neighbors, and co-workers with whom they got along well. Then, as their story goes, their African American acquaintances “one day just up and got angry.” It turns out that, as white people, while they had good intentions, they had very little idea what a black person had to endure. Adjusting to the fact that they had been dead-wrong all-along took them by surprise.
During the recent imbroglio over Barack Obama’s Inaugural invitation to Rick Warren gay people have been demonstrating their anger. Moderate liberals have jumped to the President-elect’s defense. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King, Jr. reserved his strongest rebuke for white moderates who want order and peace more than justice. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he wrote. King also quoted a letter from a white moderate who cautioned patience: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry,” to which King angrily responded: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”
To the white clergy who had urged him to desist from public protests, King eloquently made the case for why blacks can no longer wait, insisting that freedom is never given but must be demanded, and he detailed the psychological impact of having waited 340 years to receive constitutional and God-given rights. He fiercely rejected justifications of bigotry based on majority opinion.
Few leaders have spoken so powerfully on behalf of gay rights. Hillary Clinton has made eloquent speeches in front of the Human Rights Campaign. She led the fight against the Federal Marriage Amendment and throughout the recent election spoke movingly about gay people she has known. During the primaries when I expressed my support for her over Obama, another professor asked, “Hillary and Obama are both against gay marriage, so they have the exact same stance on that issue. Am I missing something?” To me that demonstrated such a world of ignorance, as if gay people cared only about this one subject, and it neglected the senator’s history of support. Hillary opposed gay marriage as a strategy and argued for a state-by-state plan. Obama, conversely, repeatedly stated that he opposed gay marriage “as a man of Christ,” as if Jesus would be appalled. That is ideology. He also explained by saying that, if he were an advisor to the civil rights movement in 1962, he would not focus on the illegality of racial marriage, preferring to focus first on attaining voting rights.
However, this is an incorrect historical analogy. No gay person is arguing for the right to marry a straight person. They want to marry each other. Black people, after all, were allowed to get married during the hell of Jim Crow. Jewish people were allowed to get married in interwar Germany. The Untouchables in India, Japan, and Korea are allowed to get married. Moreover, many scholars have argued that a link exists between the fact that black people in antebellum America were not allowed to form families and high rates of contemporary poverty; slavery denied black men the ability to be responsible fathers. The veracity of this argument is debatable but, nevertheless, it was expected, that African Americans wanted to form relationships and experience love.
What does it signify that, of all the humans on earth, only gay people are singled out as exempt from this right, from these desires? How does the restriction against participation in the most fundamental institution of every civilization on earth from time immemorial affect a gay person’s sense of self-worth? To be hopeful in such an environment would be far too audacious.
When I was growing up I never expected I would have a family of my own. Gay people were openly spoken of and depicted as pedophiles and psychopaths. A sea change occurred when Ellen Degeneres came out on national tv in 1997. Until Ellen there was no figure of stature to reference or model. If rich, powerful people were too afraid to be honest, how should poor, vulnerable people feel? The coming-out episode of her self-named TV show brought a collective sigh of relief: “Finally, someone who admits it.” Yet the visibility this brought spurred Americans across the country to insert anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in 2000 and 2004. If earning a Ph.D. in History has taught me anything, it is that history is not a straightforward march of progress; often it takes two steps forward then one step backward. Oprah Winfrey, who played the psychologist in Ellen’s coming-out episode, said that she received more hate mail for that role than for any other thing that she has done in her life.
One year after Ellen’s coming out, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tortured, pistol whipped, then tied like a scarecrow to a fence and left to die in a remote area of Laramie, Wyoming. News reports indicated that the only part of his face not covered in blood was the skin cleansed by the tracks of Matt’s tears. The lynching shocked the gay community as much as the photo of Emmett Till’s bloated, distended face affected African Americans in 1955: just as young blacks were surprised to learn they could be killed simply for their skin color so too were gays shaken to discover they could be targeted just for the gender of the person who moves their heart.
After the incident Bill Clinton tried to extend the federal hate crimes laws. Before that he had the courage, the moment he became President, to try and do something about the prejudice gays endure. He failed and compromised with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” but at least he tried before it was politically correct to do so. No one else had cared enough to make the attempt. On the contrary, these were the years when the sex abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church and the uniform response of the all-male clergy was that only gay men commit child molestation. The first black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Wilton D. Gregory went on television to say that if the Catholic Church ferreted out all the gay clergy, there would no longer and not ever again, be a problem. Then Clinton blundered in signing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. But he still invited Ellen and Anne to Washington. When I saw the picture of them with the President at the White House I almost fainted—an openly gay person was allowed inside?
Bernice King was three weeks old when her father wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963. In 2004, at the age of 41 and now a minister, Bernice marched in protest, just as her father did, but only this time, she was campaigning against gay marriage. She moved the funeral of her mother, Coretta, from her home church to a conservative anti-gay church, causing Julian Bond to refuse to attend. Coretta Scott King did believe the gay rights movement was similar to the struggle for black civil rights, for which she received rebuke from her community. She countered: “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ ” Before another group, Coretta insisted that “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity.” Former SNCC leader and Congressman John Lewis too has stood up to denounce homophobia as just another variant of the same “fear, hatred, and intolerance” that animates racism, and he castigates civil unions as just another version of separate but equal.
Similarly, in a 1970 letter to his “Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” Black Panther Party co-founder and leader Huey P. Newton urged cooperation while acknowledging prejudice. “I say ‘whatever your insecurities are’ because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth.” Newton urged deleting the word “faggot” from the black activist’s vocabulary and he pleaded for understanding: “homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in society. They might be the most oppressed people in society.” Bayard Rustin, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin had been marginalized from the movement because of their sexuality. Rustin was fired from the Friendship for Reconciliation, a pacifist group, for being gay. In an effort to assume a more prominent position for himself, Adam Clayton Powell, the heroic civil rights leader and congressman from Harlem, threatened to leak news about Rustin’s homosexuality unless King distanced himself from Rustin. Before Rustin died in 1987 he asserted that, just as the treatment of blacks was the barometer of human rights standards, now it was conduct toward gays that determined progress.
Too many Americans, liberals included, have no idea about the amount of suffering gay people endure. To speak in an informed way about gay marriage requires knowledge, whether speaking to a range of gay people about their experiences or reading on a regular basis websites of The Advocate, the Human Rights Campaign, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Just in the past two weeks a lesbian in San Francisco was gang-raped by four men who shouted anti-lesbian epithets at her during the attack, and the US and the Vatican refused to sign a UN declaration decriminalizing homosexuality (the Vatican’s head of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Grocholewski, has deemed homosexuality not only a “deviation” but a “type of wound”).[ad#travelocity-468×60]The Advocate published a story about the last known gay survivor of the Holocaust, 95-year-old Rudolf Brazda, who, like thousands of others, had to remain silent for decades after World War II ended because homosexuality remained a crime (it was decriminalized in France only in 1982). And Pope Benedict XVI preached that gays are as ominous a threat to the world as climate change. Today, it is illegal for gays to adopt in Florida, Mississippi, Utah, and Arkansas. It is legal in 20 states to fire someone just for being gay. Until last week gays were not allowed to become members in Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Gay people in nursing homes are treated like pariahs and shunted off to Alzheimer’s wards to appease their bigoted roommates. When I once suggested this reading strategy to a friend he furrowed his eyebrows: “Why would anyone want to torture themselves, reading all that bad news?” It was the same friend who, the day after John Kerry lost the 2004 election, said “To be realistic, we have to get rid of support for gay issues otherwise we’ll never win a national election.” That was easy to say for someone who feels secure and who has not endured a lifetime of prejudice.
Hatred for gay people is a global affair. Despite the Holocaust and almost constant warfare against the state of Israel conducted by hostile Muslims, Orthodox Jews turn around and conduct their own brand of global bigotry, protesting vehemently against homosexuals. Despite the thousand-plus years of hostility between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, they join hands in their hatred for gay people. In 2002 when Jerusalem hosted the city’s first gay pride parade, Eli Simchaioff, a city council member and deputy mayor complained, “These are sick people.” Other people held signs, “This is not Sodom!” and chanted, “There’s no place for homosexuals in the Jewish state,” and blamed attacks on Israel as a sign of divine punishment for blasphemy. Pope John Paul II delivered a sermon from the balcony on St. Peter’s Square, calling the parade an “offense to the Christian values of a city that is so dear to the hearts of Catholics across the world.”
Anti-gay bigotry is so omnipresent and potent it offers one way to unite the world. On March 31, 2005, the New York Times front page featured a photo of the religious leaders of the three major religions, Christianity (including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian), Judaism, and Islam, who met in Jerusalem to join in protest against the Jerusalem Gay Pride 2005 festival. These individuals would encourage their sons and daughters to die in battle against their religious enemies but they hate gay people even more than they hate each other. “They [homosexuals] are creating a deep and terrible sorrow that is unbearable,” Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar proclaimed at a news conference. An Orthodox Jewish man stabbed three gay men in the parade. “We can’t permit anybody to come and make the Holy City dirty,” Abdel Aziz Bukhari, a Sufi sheik warned. “This is very ugly and very nasty to have these people come to Jerusalem.”
The Clintons were ahead of the zeitgeist. Few people even talked about gay issues before Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Gay people do not have a political party, a country, or a continent and too often they do not have families because they are disowned the moment they are open and honest about who they are. My godmother’s husband died of AIDs and it was taken for granted that no one would mention his name again yet alone discuss the cause of death. Another relative was on the verge of dying of AIDs in 1993—his partner had already died—and when he came out to his mother she was horrified. Once she regained her composure she told him she would tell everyone he died of a heart attack. He wrote a letter to my mom to tell her the truth because he did not want his mother to have to live with the shame and endure knowing he died of AIDs on her own.
I was too afraid to come out to my father but I did tell my mother and she cried as if I were dying. “Is that why you always wear black?” was the first thing she said. The second thing was, “You can’t tell anyone else, especially Tim [my sister’s husband] because he won’t let you near the boys” [my nephews were young at the time]. At one point I did try and talk with my father about it. He immediately turned beat red, cut me off, and said, “Your sister doesn’t tell us about her sex life. I don’t want to hear about yours!” How he made that leap is ridiculous but understandable considering the prevalence of stereotypes. A few years later I tried to talk to my sister about it and she walked away, saying “That’s gross!” When I came out to friends their reactions ranged from “You just haven’t met the right man” to “only ugly women are gay because they can’t get a man.” Some close friends stopped calling or returning my calls and my Christian friends gently told me that I am an abomination in God’s eyes. To this day my best friend from college, a black woman from Nigeria, shushes me when I use the word “gay” in front of her two children. “That’s so gay!” is a staple of teen insults.
This lack of support is a reason that the cause of gay rights has not advanced as much as it should. During the African American civil rights movement, family, friends, and church played a decisive role in the lives of activists. Memoirs of those involved in the black freedom struggle routinely discuss the critical part played by their church as well as their mothers and grandmothers who gave them advice and unconditional love on a daily basis as they faced their tormentors and fought their battles. Melba Beals, one of the nine teenagers who integrated Little Rock high school in Arkansas, Septima Clark, the “Grandmother” of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker, the “Godmother” of the movement, Mary McLeod Bethune, college president and member of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee organizer Dorothy Haight—the list of black women who attributed their strength to the aid given by their mothers and fellow Christians is extensive. Even while facing down dirty looks, water hoses, and attack dogs, black activists learned about their culture, went to church, on dates, married, and had children. National organizations sent leaders to their communities to provide counsel and financial aid. Could they have accomplished what they did without their families and community networks, the normality of socially-accepted dating and anticipation of marriage?
By families, friends, churches, and leaders, gay people are routinely silenced, ignored, and denied the hope of being able to build their own families. The way anti-gay bigotry works is that a great deal of the violence and suffering is conducted away from the public eye. The resulting pain suffered is turned inwards, which is why one out of every three gay teens attempts suicide and why some of the most virulent anti-gay bigots turn out, in the end, to be gay themselves. The societal-induced self-loathing cuts deep. Too many gay people become accustomed to dealing with problems by hiding, by digging a whole and wallowing because continuing alone only bodes further despair.
Coming out of the closet does not immediately result in happiness. Resentment over lost time brims. Memories resurface about taunts while a young kid, about the whole range of distasteful notions about gays that saturate society. The step after coming out is often not a celebration but a cauldron of frustration and anger, more akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Rage, depression, and longing over missed opportunities jostle with the realization that entire years were wasted, spent worrying instead of growing. Huge gaps of time have simply vanished. Chunks of your life fell off yet no one noticed because the torment was invisible. The bruises of bigotry have a long half-life. Self-loathing cannot remain hermetically sealed; it always seeps out. If it were a chemical element it would be plutonium, oozing out of steel drums, contaminating everything it touches, from water tables to blood.
That is why if gays suffer abuse from others, they suffer even more from among their own ranks. The self-hatred instilled in a young gay boy or girl is so searing and all-consuming that they will go to great lengths to hide their essential identity, even so far as persecuting others to deflect suspicion. It is similar to the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois discussed in his classic 1903 The Souls of Black Folk, where two identities, one legitimate, the other illegitimate, are in constant conflict. “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?” Du Bois wrote about the plight of blacks in the white world of America:
a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.
In 2006 another incident revealed that the constant negotiation of two sets of standards results in dissonance and erratic behavior. Ted Haggard, founder of the megachurch New Life Church and head of the National Association of Evangelicals, preached against homosexuality but secretly had sex with a male prostitute. “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my life,” he confessed. A precedent had already been set by televangelist Paul Crouch, who founded Trinity Broadcasting Network, one of the largest Christian television and radio network in the world. Crouch paid almost a half of a million dollars, as part of a sexual harassment lawsuit, to a former male employee who alleged a homosexual encounter. In Congress, Larry Craig, the Republican senator from Idaho was arrested for “lewd conduct” in a public bathroom. For years, he voted against laws introduced in the House of Representatives designed to protect gay people, and he sang alongside Senator John Ashcroft and Trent Lott in the barbershop quartet “The Singing Senators.” Jim McGreevy, the married governor of New Jersey, resigned after revealing his affair with a man he had appointed to a lucrative state job, reluctantly making history as the first openly gay governor in U.S. history. Not exactly a hallmark of achievement to celebrate.
I did come out to the rest of my family in 2000 when Hillary was running for the Senate. I was living in Rochester, and family members in Buffalo regularly sent anti-Hillary mass emails. I finally wrote a mass email of my own, informing them that Hillary was the only one willing to stand up for me and requesting they stop circulating the scornful messages. They did. I have a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for Bill and Hillary’s words and actions on behalf of the gay community.
Now that there is increasing public support and momentum to do away with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I have no doubt Obama will revoke it. But during the election he repeatedly said he was against gay marriage “As a man of Christ.” We are so used to hearing Biblical justifications for preventing gay people from marrying that it sounds normal, so Obama’s statement seems ordinary. His invitation to Rick Warren, a man who equates gay marriage with incest, pedophilia, and polygamy, seems reasonable enough. But it is damaging and hurtful.
Martin Luther King had to find an answer for his son’s question: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” A child knows that words hurt, symbols matter, and bullies and bigotry should never be rewarded.
Liza Szefel is an assistant professor of modern American history at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon where she teaches classes on the 1970s, the Reagan era, and the history of capitalism.
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