I’m hoping that you’ll all be open to engaging me on a question that I’ve been pondering for a while now. I’m pretty sure you are all aware of this by now, but I am an GLBTQ ally and have been for years. I’m also a fellow at a center for Holocaust studies and am actively involved in outreach and education about the Shoah. These two activities have given me the opportunity to contemplate issues of equality, personhood, and compassion, and I find that the question of how people understand the struggles of others continues to come up as a primary element of the work that I do.
My husband returned home from an extended business trip last month. When he’s away on business, he tends to read a lot of USA Today. This trip was no exception.
One of the first things we talked about over his welcome-home dinner was the question of the intersection of gay rights and civil rights. Mr. Chili got all worked up about these pieces in an issue of USA Today and made sure that he set them aside for me to see.
This is the first article, an opinion piece from November:
Black leaders called on to confront homophobia
Gary E. Kaminski – Buena Vista, Pa.
My great joy at the election results has been severely tempered by California voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which effectively denies gays the right to marry (“Where’s the outrage?” The Forum, Wednesday).
(Rights fight. In Los Angeles this month, 10,000 same-sex marriage supporters march to overturn the state’s anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8.David McNew / Getty Images)
What makes this so tragic? Although many whites opposed the measure, blacks supported the denial of an existing right. It’s appalling that a group so familiar with discrimination could vote to strip rights from another minority.
I urge leaders of the black community to face head-on the blight of homophobia that, as we see in California, has real-world consequences. I urge our new President-elect, Barack Obama, who is uniquely qualified to confront issues of bigotry, to do so strongly and emphatically.
This was a response to that piece, and the article that got Mr. Chili (and me) all worked up:
Race, gay rights don’t mix
Paul Scott – Durham, N.C.
James Kirchick questioned the lack of support among African Americans for gay-rights issues. As an African American, I am tired of folks who seem to think that black civil rights issues should be mixed with the issues of others. To compare gay rights with the transatlantic slave trade is an insult to the millions of my ancestors whose bones rest at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
It must also be noted that since the civil rights era, our movement has been hijacked by every other group that has a beef with America — from gay-rights to animal-rights groups — so much so that many issues that pertain specifically to black people get lost in the shuffle. The freedom of African Americans has been paid for with our own blood, sweat and tears. We do not need gay-rights activists or any others to co-sign.
Okay, so here’s the thing; I’m coming to you with my thinking about this because I feel under-qualified, as a white woman who was raised and continues to reside in a predominantly white environment, to speak with authority about the intersection of race and GLBTQ rights. Does Mr. Scott, in your opinion, have legitimacy in claiming that “our movement,” as he calls it, has been co-opted by others seeking equality and justice? Does his argument have firm foundation in the legacy of slavery, or is it less a question of the (relatively) distant past and more about the efforts of recent leaders (and, not for nothing, ordinary people of literally every race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, and faith) who stood up and spoke out? I would hasten to remind Mr. Scott that Dr. King’s widow spoke often of the very solid connection between the work her husband did and the work that GLBTQ activists are doing now; her premise was that the oppression of ANY group dehumanizes and degrades us all. That, of course, is the message that all civil rights leaders, past and present, highlight in their work and is, I think, the foundational idea of any struggle for equality. Race has nothing to do with that; it’s about humanity.
I understand, as a Holocaust scholar, that a lot of people who have been brutalized and dehumanized and denied their basic rights by a larger and more powerful group feel an ownership to that crime. It is true that a great many Jews will still deny the importance of the other minorities who were victimized in the Shoah – that countless Gypsies, handicapped people, political activist, gays, lesbians, and trans people and who knows who else were slaughtered with the same vileness of spirit that the Jews were is secondary to THEIR suffering. I understand that they feel that to acknowledge the suffering of others somehow diminishes their own. I do not understand WHY they feel this way, however; I just know that they do. My thinking about this as it relates to the question of gay rights and race is centered around this idea; do you think Mr. Scott is operating from a presumption that “his” movement needs to be kept separate and inviolable from others; that to open the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement to encompass the struggles of others for recognition of equal personhood somehow diminishes the work that was done in the 50s and 60s? Does equating gay rights to civil rights – or, more specifically, to the capital-letter Civil Rights Movement – somehow erode or threaten the progress that’s been made on the issues of race?
I would appreciate anything you can offer me in the way of furthering my thinking about this. I recognize that there’s a big piece of this puzzle that I, by virtue of the nature of my environment and upbringing, can’t come to on my own.