Civil Rights and Wrongs
By Mark Johnson
I was a young kid during the late 1960's and early 1970's when the greatest social change that this country has known in the 20th century, the civil rights movement, was underway. Black Americans (as we wanted to be called then) were quietly and steadily demanding equal rights and equal access to all that the proverbial American Dream promised. Perhaps all those civil rights marchers didn't realize it then, but through those peaceful protests and dogged demands for social change, Blacks were writing the handbook for the human rights movement.
Now, thirty years and many scuff marks later, the tried and true handbook is still being used. Today, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are proudly and determinedly asking for justice, equal treatment and equal opportunity. When telling the story of homophobia and discrimination, members of the community often compare the GLBT struggle for human rights to that of the (on-going) African- American quest.
Gay people still hope to follow in the footsteps of African-Americans who have begun the uphill climb to the mountain top that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of in his "I Have A Dream" speech. But there are many Black people who have paved the way who don't particularly want gays and lesbians to walk in their tracks, even though there were gay and lesbian pavers.
Alveda King, niece of Dr. King is one of these people. According to her, gays and lesbians as a group have never suffered the kinds of indignities that Black people have and therefore any demands they make on American society only demean the struggle that her uncle and countless others died for in order to achieve basic equality for Black people. Skin color is an immutable characteristic, she argues. However, to her and many others in the religious right movement, homosexuality is not. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders can change their sexual orientation, they imply and thus, are unworthy of protection.
She and others who spew this rhetoric have angered many gays and lesbians who feel that because of their sexuality, they know the sting of discrimination as much as anyone else. And many gays and lesbians have angered those who see the civil rights struggle as unique to Black people and who resent GLBT people comparing themselves to Rosa Parks.
As an African-American gay man, I often find there is no welcoming place for me in either camp. Yet, I see myself as sort of a mediator or diplomat although my services often are not desired anywhere. To Blacks I am often seen as "Gay," and therefore not a part of the family. "It's Not Natural," say the Winans sisters. To many in the predominate Gay community, I am often just another Black man, and they have difficulty identifying with me.
Despite this persona nongrata status, I understand how both sides feel. What Black people have gone through (and too often continue to go through) in this country is like a migraine. You have to have experienced it for yourself to know how it feels.
To put it simply, white gay people do not know what it is like to be Black! Making that claim, no matter how well-intentioned, is generally not the way to begin a dialogue with African-Americans on the sting of discrimination. Let's face it, being white in America brings with it certain privileges, access and opportunities. People of color know this, just like women know that there are certain opportunities that derive to those born male. For whites to gloss over this reality or to dismiss it only creates anger and resentment on the part of people of color.
But African-Americans do not hold the franchise on discrimination either. Other people in our society, of different races, classes and ethnicities, know what discrimination feels like. Who should better understand this than those who have been targets of long-standing, severe discrimination like African-Americans?
This is why I was so surprised that Black Entertainment Television (BET) had considered keeping National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum Executive Director Keith Boykin out of the studio on the night that they interviewed the Winans sisters about the controversy surrounding their song. According to Boykin, he was the first confirmed guest for the BET news program, even before Angie and Debbie Winans. But, he says, when the Winans learned that he would be on the show, they threatened not to appear and he was then dis-invited.
After Boykin protested the BET decision, the cable network finally allowed him to come on the program. And thus, the show entitled, "Homosexuality and Morality" actually had a gay person on the panel. It was unfathomable that BET or any studio would pull the plug on someone from the GLBT community to satisfy the homophobic requests of performers that hardly anyone had ever heard of before the controversy. For a minute there, BET had dismissed any notion of a balanced discussion. That's a scary thought for a media outlet that reaches millions of viewers.
Although the African-American community has led the way for civil and human rights struggles in this country, there is clearly still a tenuous relationship with GLBT brothers and sisters who were an integral part of those struggles. Bayard Rustin, a Black gay man, organized the 1963 March on Washington. He was out 34 years ago.
The fact that other people can know the sting of discrimination does not diminish my experience as a Black man. If anything, it vindicates that aspect of me. If a white gay man has faced some hatred shouldn't the experience open his heart and ears to similar messages? He still won't know what its like to be Black, or a woman. But he'll be a white guy who knows what its like to be disempowered. Instead of trying to out-victim each other, we should spend the time actually listening to each other's stories.
I regard the civil rights struggle as a road map for people who want to get to a better place. Thirty years ago, Black people were at the starting point of the journey. We are still traveling toward the destination of full equality and equal opportunity.
Right now, members of the GLBT community also are continuing a voyage begun in 1969. The route has not changed and its still a bumpy road ahead full of many detours. But much of the way has already been paved and smoothed out for future travelers. And there's plenty of room on the road.
Mediacracy is a monthly column that analyzes and discusses the reporting of gay-related news stories in the national media. The column is written by Mark F. Johnson, Media Director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.