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?