On Salon I found a wonderful coming out essay written by Jean Melasaine in which she recounts the multiple communities she has grown into during her life. She was born to Samoan parents who immigrated to the US. Her parents speak little English. Her family was poor. And they attended the Mormon church, where she quickly learned that her queerness, which she figured out at an early age, made her a bad person in the eyes of the church. After going through a rough period, she ultimately came to accept her queerness openly, stating:
I knew when people made me feel bad for being brown, for being poor, for having parents who didn’t speak English, that life was going to be hard. Queerness was just another struggle.
I really like that last line: “Queerness was just another struggle.” Queerness should not be pitted against other identities. Queerness, or more broadly one’s sexuality and gender identity, is simply part of the spectrum of one’s identity.
I contrast this way of thinking with Tara Pringle Jefferson’s essay on Loop 21 which asks in its title “Do African Americans Sympathize with the Gay Rights Movement?“. The subtitle cuts to the chase: “Some do, but feel it shouldn’t be compared to the Civil Rights Movement.” Sadly, this is not an uncommon sentiment. I should first say that I do not believe that Ms. Jefferson is coming from some homophobic place. However, for me personally the very question is troubling, a divide and conquer of the soul. By my way of thinking, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement is the radical idea that black folks are human beings. Whereas the heart of the Gay Rights Movement is the radical idea that gay folks are human beings. See the difference? Good, neither do I.
The manifestations of and reasons for black oppression and gay oppression are different, but the outcome is the same: dehumanization. For different reasons, society at various points in history has labeled members of both groups unworthy of basic rights or dignity. Slavery. Jim Crow. Separate but equal. Profiling. The first three have been outlawed, though their effects fuel the fourth and thus continue to be felt in a country still uncomfortable with meaningfully discussing its past. Laws controlling sexual expression, largely aimed at queer folks in the form of anti-sodomy laws, were on the books in this country for a long time. It is still legal in many states to fire someone for being gay. And of course both blacks and gays continue to be the victims of violence.
So both oppressions have detrimental effects on their victims. Put another way, during a violent attack I personally would not stop and deconstruct whether the blows I’m receiving from fists, boots, or bats are harder or more lethal because I’m black or because I’m gay.
But the saddest part of Ms. Jefferson’s essay is its assertion that to compare the Civil Rights Movement to the various gay liberation struggles that have taken place in the last 40 odd years is somehow insulting.
Preston Mitchum, a student at American University’s Washington College of Law, said he doesn’t believe the two movements can really be compared either.
“My role is dual, because it comes from being gay and black,” he said. “I can see both sides of the story, and people need to recognize that the struggles are different. It almost trivializes black civil rights in a way.”
Let’s go back and examine one of the major tools of the Civil Rights Movement: non-violent resistance. A young man by the name of Bayard Rustin, himself black and gay, brought the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attention. Dr. King enthusiastically embraced it and contextualized it within his own theological training, famously declaring that non-violence is “a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.” So one of the major weapons of one of the major figures of the Civil Rights Movement was in fact inspired by a non-African American man from half a world away who had been dead for over seven years when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.
Does comparing the Indian struggle for independence from the British to the African American Civil Rights Movement somehow trivialize the former? Of course not. Such an assertion would be ludicrous. The fact is that both movements added to the vocabulary, richness, and history of the collective human experience. The leaders of both movements are, in fact, world citizens as a result of their work. We cannot and should not selfishly guard the legacy of Dr. King or Rosa Parks or Julian Bond or any of the other leaders who sacrificed in the name of black liberation from others seeking liberation and dignity. We must share this precious legacy with all those who appreciate their work and wish to follow their examples as part of their own struggle for personhood.
Is the struggle for queer personhood any less important than the struggle for black personhood? I think not. I cannot divide myself thus, nor do I have any desire to do so. For to do so would mean trivializing part of my own soul. Queerness is just another struggle, one which makes up part of the spectrum of my identities.
© 2011, gar. All rights reserved.