Outing King: The Hijacking of the Dream (and the Civil Rights Conversation)

Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin

The federal Martin Luther King holiday has special meaning for America. It is a day of reflection, particularly for African Americans who sought to find the true meaning of what it meant to be born in a nation that rejected their citizenship on one basis and one basis only — the color of their skin.

One hundred years after the abolishment of slavery and the legislation of full and equal protection under the law was legislated by amendment (the Fourteen Amendment) and political rights were conferred (again by amendment), freedom, justice, and equality was still being refused to African Americans. Even in the face of a judicial decree (Brown v. the Board of Education) meant to stop segregation and social alienation, the southern part of the nation engaged in the second largest social rebellion in America’s history (after the Civil War), the so-called “Massive Resistance.”

Massive Resistance was an organized engagement by Congress, the States, and American society to continue the race caste system that subjugated the rights and privileges primarily of blacks (though other non-white citizens were also caught up in the resistance). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to lead a non-violent social revolution in America. Despite political and judicial victories to bring about social and economic equality in America, Dr. King’s life was violently ended to preserve white supremacy and white privilige.

Fourteen years after his death, the nation was guilted into honoring his life and his mission with a national holiday — the only such honor conferred upon an individual born in the 20th Century. While “King Day” has turned into everything from parade celebrations to chicken dinners, many have chosen to use the day as a reminder of the one person who sought to hold a mirror up to a nation that refused to change and provide an intellectual assessment as to how far the society had come since the murder of a 20th Century prophet. Keeping King’s “dream” alive (one of social and economic equality that had, by and large, not been attained) has been a perpetual discussion, usually engaged around the day that bears his name. Yet, the day has taken on a different meaning for some.

For the past few years, the King holiday has been an opportunity to subvert the conversation of social and economic justice through the interjection of political agendas surrounding same-sex marriage. In two of the past three years, I’ve been on panels or programs organized to invoke the memory of King’s life and advocacy, only to end up debating (involuntarily) the merits of gay marriage rights. The first year it occurred, I viewed it as an anomolous discussion in the context of the evolving equality discussion of the 21st Century.

The questions of whether “gay rights” is the new civil rights and why society should view nontraditional same-sex marriage as central to the nation’s civil rights agenda have been persistent. Absent a strong moral argument for legalizing same-sex relationships in traditional institutions like marriage, gays have chosen to use the 200-year black equality struggle as the basis for their advocacy, despite the fact that there have been religious, women’s, and immigration movements that have occurred during this same period.

This year, I’ve concluded that this is a strategy to tie the legacy of Dr. King to a culture shift around same-sex marriage that is short on symbols and short on logic. The cooptation of the civil rights movement is in full effect by gays and lesbians looking to rationalize why society should adopt a cultural norm that has been rejected since the beginning of time, the mainstreaming of homosexual practices in the context of family and marriage.

Gay activists have, in fact, correlated their struggle to that of blacks in America and even monikered their struggle as the contemporary equality movement, calling gay “the new black.” This probably wouldn’t have gained much salience in the black community as the black movement was (is) the most successful and protracted movement in America, a door through which all so-called minorities (ethnic, gender [women], religious and disabled) have passed. Sexual orientation also made its way through the door within the past 25 years.

It wasn’t until the passing of Proposition 8, the traditional marriage initiative, that the African American community found itself in a quandary, as gay activists began assailing the black community for not voting against the initiative. For the record, African Americans voted for traditional marriage in the majority, as did Whites, Latinos, and Asians. People grounded in religious affiliations disproportionately voted in favor of Prop 8 across the racial spectrum. Traditional values associated with marriage are reinforced in ALL the holy books (the Torah [Old Testament Bible], the Gospel [the New Testament Bible], and the Ingil [the five holy books revealed in the Qu’ran]), yet African Americans were the only ones called out for the way they voted, supposedly because “we” should have a greater sensitivity to being discriminated against.

It’s a flawed and convoluted argument that looks past African American’s social conservatism tied to their religious beliefs. Blacks are not homophobic, and are probably more sensitized to gay lifestyles than most of the public, given that most African Americans have gays in their families. This also means that tolerance of gays is higher because of family and friend relationships. While tolerance breeds acceptance of the norm, it doesn’t default to support for modifying core beliefs around cherished institutions.

Blacks had religion when they didn’t have anything else, and religion is the last thing they will separate with. It was their religion that got them through the viciousness and inhumane conditions of slavery and segregation. It was family that gave them strength in separation and assault. The flaw in the gay advocacy is the unreasonable expectation that anyone would go against what they believe, particularly when it is re-enforced by their spiritual belief system.

Slavery and segregation were legalized (but unconstitutional) caste systems that called for a total indiscriminate exclusion of African Americans from American society. That is NOT the gay struggle. Sexual orientation is seen by most as a choice, and even if it is not a choice, it is a right of enjoyment by which the government has no role. Who you love and who you co-habitate with is a right of privacy that is not denied gays. There were no signs up that said, “No Gays Allowed.” Or “Straights Only.” Blacks had no “closets” to hide in to mainstream themselves until they decided to marry. There was NO PLACE to hide for blacks.

Even when blacks passed for white, they could be separated (outted) if one of their black relatives came around. The Lovings case (1967) that outlawed interracial marriage was a decade-long attempt of a white man to bring his black wife “out of the closet” of social separation. America’s history of lynchings, whippings, and bombings were active demonstration to keep blacks out of the mainstream of society. “Coming out” was never a choice for the African American, and the only place where they could find solance was the church–as the church led the movement.

Same-sex activists’ problem is they want to go against the church without attacking the church. They, instead, find it easier to attack African Americans for siding with their religious beliefs, and call themselves “the new black” in an effort to sensitize society to their own cause and guilt blacks into supporting them. That was, and still is, their most serious mistake, and one that needs to stop.

The church is the biggest barrier to this cultural shift. Why doesn’t the gay movement confront the church? Or declare gay marriage “the NEW BIBLE?” In fact, I DARE THEM TO. If they wanna be bold and blasphamous, BE bold and blasphemous — If their desire is to bring about a culture change with the church standing in the way, they won’t be successful. They need a religious symbol that society reveres.

Thus, enters Martin Luther King, Jr. and his philosophy of love and compassion. King took on the white church when it sat silent on segregation and criticized him for direct action in Birmingham (Letter From A Birmingham Jail). King dealt with the conflictions of the church’s morality as they related to segregation. King could also argue (for the first time since Reconstruction) that the law was on his side.

But there is nothing in the historical literature, anywhere, that suggests King advocated for equality in sexual orientation. In fact, the Civil Rights movement had its issues with gayness in the movement and for that reason offered gay activist, Bayard Rustin, little more than an organizing role in the movement because of his sexuality. It’s a far stretch to suggest if King were alive, he would have supported gay marriage.

Yet, gay rights actvists have this pressing need to tie King to their cause, to legitimize their movement. They can’t find adequate venues to engage the black community on the issue of gay marriage, so they hijack King Day programs where they can dominate question and answer periods by interjecting questions around gay marriage. And they never want to have a morality conversation, as critical as that conversation is to a conversion (and shift) of America’s cultural mindset.

I just think it’s time the gay marriage activists host their own forums on gay marriage and why society (not just Blacks) should support it. And we should resist the effort to merge our struggle with theirs. Black people are not going to be guilted or bludgeoned into support. Culture shifts for race and gender equality took 100 years. Gays are in the first 25 years of their advocacy. And the law (not black people) isn’t on their side. That’s reality.

Presenting this legal challenge before the California State Supreme Court is the best way to address the violation of gays’ constitutional rights. Force the courts to challenge America’s (and the State’s) view of marriage morality and the church’s stand on traditional marriage. That’s their constitutional right.

I wish they would stop hijacking King’s dream by an inferred association and find ways to bring about their dream of gay marriage. Come out of the closet on the conversation, and leave African American comparasions out of it. With a legitimate rationale to educate the public and the law on their side, there just might be more support in the black community.

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com


  1. Alex Walker says

    From a strictly Political Science point of view, Mr. Samad’s commentary is classical conservatism. The fact that such a thing can be posted so prominently on a web site that advertises itself as “progressive” just goes to show how much the “rot” of “Identity Politics” combined with the cynicism of Democratic Party Machines in a city like Los Angeles have made our times such a political hell for those of us who sincerely believe in issues of peace and justice.

    If you look at most of the posts on this web site since Proposition 8 passed by landslide margins in Black neighborhoods like mine in Central Los Angeles, it is clear that it’s not “P.C.” to criticize Black politicians, Black preachers, or Black pundits for that fiasco.

    The problem is this: it’s a iron law of Political Science that whenever you set up a rule that a group of political players can never be criticized, sooner or later, that group will become clubby, arrogant, and corrupt. Alas, this is exactly what has happened to a whole chorus of political players in Los Angeles who look Black like me.

    The point is that Proposition 8 could have been defeated, but the African-American politicians who claim to be progressive on this issue didn’t have the guts to buck a few old reactionary preachers. And now, their little “Amen Chorus” of Black intellectuals like Anthony Samad and Jasmyne Cannick keep shouting over and over that criticizing obvious, brazen homophobia in my community is an “attack” on all Blacks.

    This is exactly equivalent to the canard that all criticism of rightwing politicians in Israel is antisemitic or that all criticism of Christian so-called conservatives come from people who “hate God.”

    We have always had prominent gays in the African-American community. I grew up in Black churches in the South “back in the day” and there were always a few who were prominent even inside the churches. I thought I’d never live to see the day Black churches would be marching on orders from the Mormons! If anyone is “hijacking” my community it is partisan Republican so-called “conservative” clique (and their big bucks) who seem to be defining this agenda.

  2. Sylvia Moore says

    I have to agree with MLM’s impassioned post, and respectfully disagree with Dr. Samad’s opinion piece. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream doesn’t just belong to any one particular group. It belongs to all of us. The civil rights struggle is a human rights struggle, and the LGBT community should be a part of it. The Founding Fathers of our country, who were wealthy white slave owners, never intended to include blacks and women in their vision of an equal society under the law when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But that didn’t stop people of color and women from using the Founding Fathers’ own words to fight for those same rights enjoyed by white male propertyowners.

    As an African-American myself, I understand why many in the black community – including Dr. Samad – feel protective of Dr. King’s legacy. The church played an important role in the civil rights struggle. Today, the church still plays a prominent role in black social and political life. But what those in the black community who oppose gay marriage must understand is that this is a secular nation that includes people of diverse faiths and those, like myself, with no faith at all. Christianity and the Bible are not, and should not, be the basis of our legal code. Our laws are secular, and no one has the right to impose their religious beliefs on others who don’t share those beliefs. That includes how we sanction relationships. Marriage is more than an exchange of vows; it’s a legal contract that governs property rights, visitation rights, custodial rights and so on.

    The fact is – the word “marriage” can no longer be seen in purely religious terms. The church can no longer lay claim to the word because our secular laws use the word. Most people use “marriage” in a non-religious sense; saying “we’re going to the justice of the peace to get civil-unioned” is pretty awkward. And just because something is a “tradition” to one group of people doesn’t mean that “tradition” can’t be changed when public opinion changes. The idea of marriage and who can participate in it is changing – younger Americans, no matter what their religious affiliation, support gay marriage much more than their parents’ generation.

    It may be true, as Dr. Samad says, that black gays and lesbians are not as ostracized by their friends and families. But their identity as gay and lesbian, and their relationships, are still largely not accepted within the black community. That is still a form of homophobia. And we can’t ignore the fact that there is rampant homophobia in hip-hop culture. There is much discomfort within the black community towards talking about homosexuality and homophobia, just as there is much discomfort within the white community towards talking about racism. That discomfort stems not just from religious upbringing, which discourages frank talk about sex in general, but also sensitivity over images of Black sexuality and the meaning of Black masculinity. But that discomfort has to be overcome if there is going to be any meaningful dialogue between the black and LGBT communities. Likewise, the LGBT community must be sensitive to the unique challenges blacks have had to face and continue to face in this society if they want to have any hope of winning them over on the issue of gay marriage.

  3. MLM says

    The author, Samad, seems insulted by the parallels drawn between the gay rights movement and the black civil rights struggle. As an LGBT person, I realize that if I get killed because I’m gay, it’s no different than if I get killed for being black. Either way I’m dead, and the terroristic consequence on other members of my group is just as effective regardless of the murderer’s hateful reasons. That is the first similarity between racism and homophobia. Is racism worse than homophobia? Is./was it harder for blacks than gays? Ask a mom whose gay son was beaten to death how hard it is. More to the point, why should we even have to compare different forms of discrimination and hatred? The death of one mother’s son is one too many, and the institutionalized oppression of any American is against our Constitution, regardless of what your religion tells you about God hating gays. Samad even justifies his opinion by saying that gays can at least HIDE who they are. Jeez.

    Another major similarity between oppression of gays and blacks is exemplified by the author’s own words: “While tolerance breeds acceptance of the norm, it doesn’t default to support for modifying core beliefs around cherished institutions.” Well, duh. One of the biggest barriers to racial equality was and still is that our cherished institutions promoted racial inequities. The judge upholding the anti-miscegenation law in the famous court case Loving v. Virginia actually quoted the Bible as justification for preventing marriage between people of different races. Samad says, “The flaw in the gay advocacy is the unreasonable expectation that anyone would go against what they believe, particularly when it is re-enforced by their spiritual belief system.” Good thing King didn’t give up just because racist whites thought God made them superior. Sacred and cherished institutions and beliefs kept black oppressed for far too long. Continuing to deny LGBT citizens equal rights based on archaic, distorted biblical beliefs is just as wrong.

    King never advocated for equal rights for homosexuals, and Bayard Rustin, an organizer in King’s organization was held back because of his sexuality. Not surprising, given that even today educated blacks like Samad still want to believe God and the Bible support oppression of gays. Guess what, Samad. No women were in prominent positions in King’s organizations. Gee, maybe that’s because women were oppressed in the same way gays were. Not that we need to compare oppressions now, do we?
    If King were alive today would he support gay marriage? I don’t know, but given King’s words and actions, I find it hard to believe that he would be suckered into the kind of thinking that Samad holds so dear. Samad is a heterosexual, religious black man refusing to recognize any similarities between racial injustice and institutionalized oppression of gays, and he out of line to try to speak for Martin Luther King Jr. implying that King wouldn’t have supported equal rights for all, including LGBTs.

    Samad claims that gay rights activists tie King to their cause to legitimize their movement. That’s not true; the gay rights movement is legitimate all on its own. Our US Constitution provides for equality, and every single law that oppresses the gay minority is unjust and unconstitutional. If you don’t like the idea of gay marriage, don’t marry someone gay. But my kids don’t have equal rights to children of straight couples, and that is both wrong and mean spirited. Think about that next time you get the chance to vote on whether or not gays should have marriage equality. When you discriminate against gays, you’re discriminating against their heterosexual children as well. Samad wants to discuss morality, as if his distorted religious beliefs dictate morality for American citizens. How about discussing the morality of oppressing children of LGBT citizens?

    Finally, Samad says that blacks are not going to be “guilted or bludgeoned” into support of gay rights. That’s probably true, because religious institutions and beliefs had allowed people to justify oppression or others for centuries. Hurting gays is nothing new. We were tortured by the millions by the Catholic Church, murdered by the Nazis and today straight Americans get to vote away our rights. Straight blacks are not going to feel guilty about oppression gays as long as their religious leaders continue to claim we’re some aberration against God’s plan. The fact is, homosexuality is a natural form of human and animal behavior, and probably evolved as part of mammalian social behavior. Being gay is like having brown eyes; it’s likely based on genetic and/or environmental influences and is found in every advanced mammal species and in every corner of the world (except in Iran, where they’ve killed enough of them to cause the rest to hide in fear for their lives). So who’s doing the bludgeoning, Samad? You think drawing parallels between the gay rights movement and the black civil rights struggle is bludgeoning? Really?

    Samad says, ”I wish they would stop hijacking King’s dream by an inferred association…” That’s nonsense. King’s dream already includes me, both as an African American and as an LGBT citizen. There is no hijacking going on. King stood for equality, and there are clear parallels between racial injustice and oppression of LGBTs. The only difference today is that men like Samad are still mired in their own homophobic beliefs. Just as racist bigots used the Bible to justify oppression of blacks, Samad is willing to believe that institutionalized oppression of LGBTs is OK.

    I don’t care if you believe that whites are better than blacks, or if your religion teaches that the Bible says gays are immoral, you don’t have the right to oppress other citizens. You don’t have the right to deny the benefits of civil marriage to the children of gay citizens. Not in this country. That’s what makes Martin Luther King’s work so powerful – he stood up for what was ethically right, and his demands were in alignment with the Constitution of our great nation: Equal rights for all!

  4. says

    I can certainly understand why Mr. Samad and other African-Amerians would be offended by the gay person(s) who used the phrae “gay is the new black”. But, the utter contempt with which he dismisses GLBT people’s struggle for civil rights FROM THE SECULAR GOVERNMENT–NOT changing any church–is a capitulation to the same old divide and conquer. Mr.Samad has bought the (false) notion that justice is a ZERO SUM GAME: if GLBT people gain the same rights heterosexuals have there will somehow be less justice for African-Americans. He also clearly has NO KNOWLEGE of what life has actually been like for gay,lesbian people, bi-sexual and transcgendered people over time: people FIRED from their jobs, EVICTED from their apartments, pre-19790s,ARRESTED for simply being in a gay bar. Mr. Samad obviously is cluless about the VERY REAL VIOLENCE that GLBT people have long been and CONTINUE to be subjected to–including MURDER.

    I haven’t always agreed with the tactics of marriage equality activists. But, I sure think that EQUAL UNDER THE LAW does NOT only apply to heterosexual people. Chruches are free to beieve and do what they want–but, when it comes to the LAW, everyoe deserves the same rights.

    It;’s also very interesting to me that Mr,.Samad talks aobut “traditonal values” and marriage that he bovilusly thinks would be HARMED by GLBT people having marriage equality.
    However, heterosexual people have a 50% DIVORCE RATE and in the African-American community 70% of children are born OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE. Whatever challegnes heterosexual marriage has, it obviously has nothing to do with GLBT people and I suggest Mr.Samad focus on getting his own community’s house in order rather than trying to deny other human beings their rights under law.

  5. Paul McDermott says

    Mr Samad has some homophobic issues to deal with. He is definitely no progressive and clearly aims to exploit divisions within the community. Since when is marriage not a civil rights issue? It clearly was back in the 1960’s and before when Blacks were fighting to get rid of those oppressive anti-miscegenation laws.

  6. says

    Commenting on the article. First I had the privilege to meet both Dr. King, I worked as a volunteer security person when he visited my college and later in the evening was privileged to be at the reception with Dr. King, and Bayard Rustin. A colleague and I interviewed Bayard Rustin in Pittsburgh as part of a press conference and then talked with him afterward. Then as now I am an activist and I would like to correct the record a bit on this story. Mr. Rustin was not just an organizer but a darned good organizer and furthermore he was part of an inner circle that advised Dr. King on strategy and tactics. More to the point of not advertising Mr. Rustin was the hangover the nation had, especially the progressive nation, from the effects of the McCarthy era, red baiting, character assassination, and shunning. Dr. King well knew that though Bayard Rustin was a trusted member of the team that the Civil Rights Movement was fighting a difficult enough battle without having to fight the battle of a progressive gay man being out front in the battle. If the anti-homosexual atmosphere seems bad now it is little compared to the late 50s and 60s. I had even been used to question the loyalty of Americans amid accusations of homosexual spies (Whatever the hell they could have been as compared to other spies.)for other countries such as the USSR. To conclude, I think it behooves us be wary of fogging history and not being aware of social realities when any of other look backward and decide what any “historic” figure might have had as his or her opinion unless the particular question was asked and answered.


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