How Should White Advocates of LGBT Rights Speak About Black History?

In 1996, famed Civil Rights leader John Lewis was one of very few Congressional representatives to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  It passed the House by a vote of 432 to 67.  The U.S. Senate affirmed it by a count of 85 to 14.  Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton signed it into law.

But John Lewis, a middle-aged straight man from the Deep South, voted against it.  And drawing upon his experience growing up a black man during the reign of terror known as Jim Crow, he stood up and made a speech against it.

“When I was growing up in the South, during the 40s and 50s, the great majority of people in that region believed that black people shouldn’t be able to enter places of public accommodation, and they felt that black people shouldn’t be able to register to vote. And many people felt that that was right, but that was wrong.  I think as politicians, as elected officials, we should not only follow but we must lead our districts.

You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, when people talked about interracial marriages, and I quote, ‘Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’

Why don’t you want your fellow men and women, your fellow Americans, to be happy?

Why do you attack them?  Why do you want to destroy the love they hold in their hearts?

Why do you want to crush their hopes, their dreams, their longings, their aspirations?

We are talking about human beings, people like you! People want to get married, buy a house, and spend their lives with the one they love!

They have done no wrong.”

In this speech, Lewis offers both an inspiring example of moral courage and compassion and an alternative to the type of anti-black, pro gay rhetoric highlighted by Amaryah in her latest post.  Rather than using other people’s suffering to legitimize his own struggle, Lewis uses his own suffering as a launching point for compassion.

Notice that, although Lewis mentions gay marriage and interracial marriage in the same sentence, he does not equate them.  He does not call the push for gay equality “the new Civil Rights Movement” as so many (mostly white) gay rights advocates do.  He does not seek to legitimize gayness by analogizing it to blackness.  He does not need “gayness” to be just like “blackness” in order to recognize the dignity of gay people’s shared humanity.

Because Lewis grew up in the Jim Crow South, he knows that might does not make right.  He starts with a hermeneutic of prudent suspicion against the moral certainties of majorities.  He knows what it feels like to be stripped of one’s individuality and reduced to a despised and stigmatized social identity.  He knows what it feels like to long for happiness.

Though Lewis sides with LGBT people, he does not seek to interpret the meaning of their history.  He does not tell them how they should feel or act as gay people.  Many white gay rights advocates, in contrast, often imply that blackness entails support for LGBT equality.  Because they have forced blackness and gayness into a self-serving sameness, white gay rights advocates style themselves authorities on the contemporary political ramifications of the Civil Rights Movement.

But those of us who are white need to approach black history with a sense of humility.  We need to realize that, had we lived during the 1920s or 30s or 40s, we would have almost certainly disapproved of interracial marriage.  We would have also been quite likely to approve of or at least sanction some form of legalized apartheid.  We would have sipped from “whites only” water fountains or sat in all-white fronts of city buses as a matter of casual habit.  We cannot prop ourselves up by claiming to be on the right side of a history that has already happened.

It’s easy for contemporary whites to compare ourselves to the victors of battles already won.  Let us act instead like John Lewis and join the battles currently underway.  With this vote, Lewis does the opposite of what many mainstream gay rights advocates do.  He does not use other people’s struggles; he joins them.  Today, many white LGBT advocates use the fight for black freedom and equality; many fewer of us join this fight.

White LGBT advocates condemn the white supremacist mechanisms of the past, but will we condemn the white supremacist mechanisms that continue to press down upon black and brown Americans both gay and straight? We hate bans on interracial marriage, but do we hate the war on drugs? We hate the racially segregated restroom but do we hate the still racially segregated Northern city?  Or do we hate racism only when it serves our own self-interest?

9 thoughts on “How Should White Advocates of LGBT Rights Speak About Black History?

  1. Thank you, Katie. You may be interested in this post from a Black Christian minister. He links the movements historically, not by equating them but by citing the expansion of democratic political opportunities achieved by the US movement against racial apartheid (CRM). He argues that LGBTI movements benefit from and built upon the CRM’s achievements and are thereby linked. LGBTI movements are thus also harmed by the tragic Supreme Court decision that guts the Voting Rights Act.)

    We can further ask whether LGBTI organizations want to be institutions dedicated to the equality of LGBTI people or (in a more restricted way) institutions for equal sex/gender rights. The former is what opens these movements to examine the broader array of intersecting harms affecting LGBTI persons.

    • Yes, you make great points here. And I really like that way of relating the movements. I think we could also say something similar about feminism/women’s rights movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      And I am very intrigued by your last point about arguing for inclusion and pushing for sex/gender rights. Could you say a little bit more about that?

  2. Thank you for this post. I LOVE Macklemore’s “Same Love” and have had Amaryah’s post going through my head as I analyze my personal victory song over the last few days. I know, I’m a cis-whiite-guy, and I still struggle to find my ignorance points. But Amaryah’s post has been striking to me and this is a good compendium.

    I’m learning the difference between assigning and joining, and it’s complicated (at least to my instincts). the hardest part is knowing when joining has become assigning these meanings, especially since it starts with a good intention. How do we questions our own actions in the midst of wanting to do good?

    • Hello,
      Thanks for reading and for commenting.

      I think the main thing is to be a thoughtful listener and to be willing to have your assumptions overturned by other people’s life experiences. I also think that asking whether you can still ethically derive pleasure and meaning from “Same Love” without harming black people is a different question (with a different starting point and trajectory) than asking how you can be an ally or a joiner of movements. I think (not to accuse you of this) if we are simply trying to see what we can “get away with” without doing harm, we are much less likely to act as allies than if we ask what how we can be of service to or in alliance with others.

      I also think white people should suspend their notions of their own good intentions when dealing with race-related issues. I think too often our sometimes sincere belief that we have “good” intentions blocks us from actually hearing what people are trying to tell us. First of all, I think our ability to really judge our own intentions with regard to issues of racialized power is limited. Second of all, I think this perspective is too egocentric and self-centered.

      So, and I should say that, as a white person, I might not be well equipped to answer this question and I would love to hear what others have to say about this, the main thing is to be willing to actually listening to what people are saying.

  3. Hey Katie,

    Great post. I’m interested, though, in how this humble use of Black Civil Rights still seems to maintain the idea of sexuality and blackness as disparate entities that intersect with one another rather than as discourses of power that co-constitute one another.

    I’m wondering if you’ve read this: http://www.amazon.com/Racism-Sexual-Oppression-Anglo-America-Genealogy/dp/0253220637/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372458373&sr=8-1&keywords=ladelle+mcwhorter

    • Hello Amaryah,
      Could you say a little bit more about the distinction you are making? I think I get what you are gesturing towards but I’m not sure… I think I will just say that, I did not mean, in this post, to posit any positive theory of race and/or sexuality. Could you say a little bit more about how you thought I was identifying sexuality and blackness as disparate entities that intersect with one another?

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