Post Number: 2397
|Posted on Thursday, December 01, 2005 - 06:07 pm: |
My friend, Keith Boykin, had this on his board today.
Comparing Civil Rights to Gay Rights
by Keith Boykin
There's a scene in The Color Purple, the movie, where Shug Avery is singing in a lounge when she hears the distant echoes of a familiar song. The choir at her father's church is singing "God Is Trying To Tell You Something" and when Shug hears it, she stops singing her jazz tune and walks out, leading a procession of fans and band members on a trip to the church. In full voice, she bursts into the church, confronts her father and reconciles their years of division. "See daddy, sinners have soul too," she whispers in his ear.
Maybe God is trying to tell us something today too. This year, World AIDS Day falls on the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks's courageous decision to refuse to give up her bus seat, a move which sparked the modern civil right movement. But today is also the day when Oprah Winfrey's The Color Purple opens on Broadway. And it's the day when the highest court in South Africa has ruled that "gay marriage" must be made legal in that country.
Your Blues Ain't Like Mine
"Can you compare civil rights with gay rights?" That's the question a young student at Vassar College asked me Monday night after I spoke at the school. "Of course you can," I told her. "The problem is that when people hear 'compare' that think they hear 'equate' and black people are reluctant to equate the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement." But to compare simply means to look at the similarities and differences, and on that score, we absolutely can and should compare the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement.
One of the principal arguments raised against comparing black suffering with gay suffering is the red herring that gays did not have to sit in the back of the bus in the same way that gays did. Well, not exactly. Of course gays had to sit in the back of the bus because some gays were black. Bayard Rustin was a black gay man, and one of Dr. King's closest advisers, and he too was forced to sit in the back of the bus. The simplistic reductionist view that seeks to create a wedge between sexuality and race ignores the reality that some blacks are gay and some gays are black.
But there's a larger issue here too. Why does it matter if gays had to sit in the back of the bus? We don't tell Latinos or Native Americans or people with disabilities or women or any other oppressed group that they have to prove their suffering is identical to black suffering in order to be legitimate. Nor are we concerned with which group is worse off in the artificially constructed hierarchy of oppression when we talk about other minorities.
The point is it doesn't matter which group is most oppressed or which was first oppressed or whether they are identically oppressed. What matters is that no group of people should be oppressed. But the more we focus on the hierarchy of difference, the less we focus on the actual oppression.
It's Our Anniversary
That's why I take great comfort in South Africa's decision to move toward marriage equality today. It's the second time in two years when a major civil rights anniversary has fallen on the same day as a major victory in the marriage equality struggle. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, the state of Massachusetts outlawed marriage discrimination against gays and lesbians. That also sparked outrage from conservative forces in the black community who want to protect the image of the civil rights struggle.
But black people don't hold a monopoly on the civil rights movement. That movement began long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat or before Dr. King gave his famous speech in Washington. Dr. King himself acknowledged that many of his tactics and strategies were developed by Mahatma Gandhi in an entirely different struggle years before and thousands of miles away. And Gandhi too learned his philosophy from others.
Over the course of history, the people of the world have been slowly moving toward freedom as we have liberated ourselves from oppressive socially-constructed restrictions on our identities. Fifty years ago, no one thought that a black woman should sit in the front of the bus with white people. Today, a powerful black woman with the most influential show on television will premiere a huge Broadway show adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by another successful black woman.
I am confident that 50 years from now we will look back at this day in the same way we look back at the anniversary of Rosa Parks's courageous move. Our children and grandchildren will wonder why our society was so obsessed with perpetuating bigotry against gays and lesbians. And they will ask us which side we were on and what did we do to make a difference.