The Way We Think About the Struggles of Others

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.



Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, Gay/Straight Alliance, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, out in the real world, politics, Questions, self-analysis

15 responses to “The Way We Think About the Struggles of Others

  1. Dude ain’t got a leg to stand on. Seriously. The Hunk’s coming by to pick me up in just a min, so I can’t do my research, but I am SURE that on there’s posts about how advocating for women’s rights, or the rights of any specific group, is a way to focus and be more effective in one’s pursuit of HUMAN RIGHTS.

    Eep! He’s here. Gotta fly. Hey, will you pop by and lemme know what you think of my new look?! 😀

  2. John

    Dear Chili:

    There are a lot of complicated issues here, and a very difficult history, so there are no simple answers, but I’ll offer a few thoughts.

    First, I want to address the issue of authority and background. We live in a nation shaped by white supremacist, patriarchal, and heterosexist
    ideology. “Civil Rights” was for many years a concept limited to white, heterosexual (and protestant Christian) males. So as a white,
    heterosexual person, you should have a lot to bring to these issues, since in many ways your life, like mine, has been defined, positioned,
    facilitated by our history. And as a woman, you should know something about how this culture works to the exclusion of some in favor of
    others. Of course, our culture has also taught us to be relatively unaware or at least unthoughtful about the ways in which we’ve been favored, but our challenge is to recognize the ways in which concepts of race, sexuality, religion, and (for me) gender have been all about us.

    From that perspective, you can discover what you have to bring to these issues. I specialize in African American history and literature, and I’m the faculty advisor for the GLBT group on my campus –but I don’t approach that work by trying to imagine what
    it would be like to be someone else. I learn and, I hope, understand by paying attention to my own ignorance, the ignorance I was pretty much
    taught not to notice. There is great wisdom available to those who come to know, with some precision and self-awareness, the limits of their
    knowledge and understanding. And there is an authority that you can bring to these issues–always, an authority that discovers itself through the recognition of the necessity of collaborative effort and understanding.

    This is, of course, also a nation that has a long history of pitting one underrepresented group against another. Often, the response to that
    history is to group all oppressed groups together. That’s another way, of course, to emphasize that our country has said that the only thing that matters is being white, male, heterosexual, and Christian.
    Everyone who falls outside the pale of that group is therefore grouped together–as if civil rights as a philosophical ideal actually exists in this country, and one can be defined simply by one’s position to this realm of existence, inside of it or outside. Those outside can be grouped together because they are, in fact, outside, and the inside remains implicitly white, male, heterosexual, Christian. The challenge
    is not simply inclusion in what we call civil rights in this country. The challenge is to re-imagine what it might mean to talk of civil rights in this country.

    So various groups have been oppressed, but not all oppressions are the same. Moreover, many people belong to more than one of these groups. And moreover, too, each of these groups is characterized by great cultural and ideological diversity, and each has a very complex history both of oppression and of cultures formed in response to that oppression, as influenced by the diversity of the imagined community.

    So it gets tricky when we try to use a kind of ideological or historical shorthand for talking about how these groups should interact–whether
    blacks (already the designation loses its complexity, its ability to represent diversity and a complex history) should support gays (another
    difficult and problematic designation referring to a complex community and history). Political discourse speaks of history whether we mean it
    to or not, and people will naturally respond to the simplifications that result.

    If we are going to forge alliances, we will need to know what we’re talking about, and we will need to formulate a political discourse capable of accounting for difference, of historical complexity, and of diversity within the groups that we assume are simple to identify since we are identifying them by their exclusion from the white supremacist,
    patriarchal, heterosexist, Christian norm.

    If there is a bottom line here, it extends from King’s reminder that injustice anywhere means injustice everywhere, that we are not in a position to talk about rights until everyone has access to the same
    opportunities of inclusion and representation. From there, we have many bridges to build, bridges that can’t be built very well if we don’t learn the basic fact of our mutual dependence on one another, our different forms of ignorance, our common need for collaborative approaches to understanding.

    Just my thoughts.


  3. John, thank you! I recognize that I do tend to come at things from a default position of thinking I know nothing; that I’m under-qualified and shamefully ignorant and how can I POSSIBLY contribute meaningfully to the conversation?! I’m working on overcoming that bit of annoying self-depreciation, but it still leaks out now and then. Sorry.

    I’m still processing all you said here (and thank you so much for taking the time to say it!), but the overall impression I’m getting is that you’re saying we’re never really able to compartmentalize – or, rather, simplify – the questions we’re talking about here because the scope of history and culture is too broad to allow for that kind of treatment. While I certainly agree – no one person’s experience of oppression is ever the same as another’s, even when they are the victims of the same oppressors – I also wonder if we NEED to simplify the questions in order to even begin to contemplate them. Would we be able to start a conversation about the Holocaust if we were to think about it in terms of eight million individual stories? Can we talk about centuries of slavery without making broad (and almost always diminishing) generalizations about it? The enormity of what’s required for truly considered inquiry makes me feel very small indeed.

    It’s the idea of being “unaware, or at least unthoughful, about the ways in which we’ve been favored” that intrigues me. I think that’s what I’m circling around – this idea that there are some who believe they are “more affected” by these sorts of questions than others when, if we are being really honest, NO ONE gets out of this unscathed. Because I am a white, straight, affluent woman, I considered myself ill-equipped to address these questions – how can I possibly understand the position of someone who belongs to a typically oppressed group (regardless of their relative status within that group)? – when the truth, as you so clearly pointed out, is that my very being has been shaped by these policies and histories and movements as much as anyone else’s; and perhaps more so, simply because I AM being thoughtful about the questions.

    This brings me back to an issue that comes up for me again and again and again, and it’s one that I struggle mightily with; how do I recognize and celebrate and honor differences while, at the same time, rejecting them as constructs that we use for the purpose of separating ourselves from one another? As a parent, I work very hard to teach my children to see people as PEOPLE; what they look like, how (if) they worship, what they do, and who they love is entirely inconsequential to the idea of their essential PERSONHOOD. I war with the idea that the differences that we create for ourselves – race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality, insert-difference-here – DO matter; they matter to the people who choose to associate with people they perceive to be “like” them and they help to define who people believe they are, and the idea that pretty much ALL of it is made up. My own spirituality tells me that the vehicle in which we travel this life is entirely window dressing, and that regardless of the categories we put ourselves in, whether we take those categories on willingly – as with religion or nationality – or feel that they belong to us intrinsically – as with race or sexuality – we are all essentially the same being (I go back to the idea of “namaste” in yogic teaching – “I honor the place in you where the Universe resides. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are the same being.”).

    SO, I come back to the same question; is it fruitful for us to further separate ourselves in this specific instance? Should those who feel an ownership to the legacy of the capital-C Civil Rights Movement continue to reject the idea of GLBTQ rights in the context of the work done in the 50s and 60s? Should Holocaust survivors (and Jews in general) continue to minimize the suffering of Gypsies and GLBTQ people and other non-Jews during the Holocaust? Does the continued separation of the oppressed into distinct and specific groups protect the legacies of those who would keep others from using “their” experiences as touchstones for different experiences? Is the gentleman who objected to the “co-opting” of the Civil Rights Movement correct in his implication that the same lessons do not apply to the gay rights struggle? My answer is no, of course, but I’m not sure how to begin the conversation that would both justify the commonalities of the two movements while avoiding minimizing – or, at least, the appearance of minimizing – the great suffering that blacks endured as a result of their collective history.

  4. I can see this from both sides. On the one hand, if one oppressed group cannot understand the struggles of another oppressed group, what hope do we have of making a more privileged group understand? It seems logical that one group would wish for equal rights for other groups because it would ultimately help their cause.

    On the other hand, I think it places a burden on one group to expect them to automatically support other groups. From what I understand, the issue of homosexuality is perhaps even more taboo in the black community. And, of course, people often bring religion and morality into the question of whether gay people should marry or even exist. So even if black people can understand the struggles of the gay community, they may have reasons they would not want to support rights for that particular group (fear of going against god’s wishes, etc.). And just because a group has been oppressed, should we automatically expect them to be better able to put aside their personal prejudices than anyone else? That seems similar to expecting all black people to be able to dance well or be good at sports; it takes away their individuality.

    All that being said, it seems to me that it is to everyone’s advantage to encourage communication between different groups fighting for civil rights because imagine the strength and momentum they could all gain. Perhaps they feel that society can only take small steps toward acceptance and only one group at a time can make headway as if the door only opens a crack and they’re hoping they can be the next group to slip through. Or they need to spend all their energy on their particular battles or they’ll lose ground. I think these are fallacies, but I can understand the fear that drives these thoughts. Hopefully people can evolve beyond those fears.

    Now what I don’t understand is when different groups of people go through the same general experience and then discount the experiences of others. Like the holocaust. Or the war in Vietnam (some male vets are actively against any recognition of the women who served in Vietnam during the war).

  5. Very interesting questions. I don’t have time to respond thoughtfully right now, but I can point you to a blog post you might find interesting. It was written by a White lesbian mother of African-American daughters. It doesn’t address your exact question, but she does discuss the issue in a slightly different context.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying reading the questions and the comments on here.

  6. Suzanne

    In 1848, Frederick Douglass (as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) made an appearance at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention. They all shared a vision for equal rights for all people, not just for whites, or whites and blacks, (or whites, blacks and women, for that matter).

    Equal rights mean equal rights for all.

  7. I’m in the midst of holiday shopping, wrapping, and baking so forgive me if this post is not very articulate or well thought out but I wanted to jot down some thoughts on this before the holiday rush:

    I agree with Suzanne that equal rights means equal rights for all, but equating the gay rights movement with the Civil Rights movement rubs some people the wrong way. From what I understand those who agree with Mr. Kamiski do so because the Civil Rights movement was about being able to eat, sleep, drive, vote, live, etc. just like everyone else. There were lynchings, beatings, and other horrible acts committed against those who advocated for these rights. I don’t think anyone will deny that the GLTQ community has also suffered physical, mental, and emotional harm to have these same rights. However, when it comes to Prop 8, I think people get up in arms when others try to say the right to marry is akin to the Civil Rights movement because the GLTQ movement is already protected by the laws that were enacted to protect African-Americans (not that discrimination doesn’t still exist, mind you, just that the laws are in place). To say that the GLTQ right to marry is equal to the potential of being lynched because you moved into a White neighborhood or sat at the wrong booth in a diner just does not balance equally on some people’s scales of justice.

    The women’s movement started in equality but was eventually divided over the rights of African-Americans and women. Leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton broke away from supporting the African American right to vote unless women were first given the right to vote. White women.

    As another commenter has stated, has some interesting articles about this the conflict/perceived conflict between equating the GLTQ marriage movement with the Civil Rights movememt. I think I’ve read views from both sides on that blog.

    I can see both sides of the issue.

  8. Oops! I burned the cookies!

  9. Coming from a background of your worst nightmare, a rural, white, christian,(raised, though I did reject all religions. My concept of God is beyond any definition), economically poor, and born and raised in Georgia in 1960 (five years before the Civil Rights Act of 1965), I have seen quite a bit of change. And a lot that remains the same.
    In the early 1980’s, in our small, rural town in south Georgia, there was a dragging death, much like the infamous one in Jackson, Texas. However, this victim, though Black, was also a transvestite.
    The papers wrote in lurid details the circumstances of his death, and left no doubt as to how he deserved to die because of his “sin”. It was certainly a shameful moment in our town’s history.
    I don’t understand how people can hate each other because of their color, religion, origin, sexuality, or whatever circumstance they find themselves, other than hate.
    I do know we have always had our differences cultivated among us, and we have always been quite willing to latch on to those differences so that we might elevate our positions in the social ladder. Or at least have the illusion of this elevated status.
    We are all slaves of our own making. And, had Christianity followed the teachings of their founder and just loved God with all they had, and loved their neighbor as they loved themselves, I might still call myself a Christian. Even though I do not believe this person existed, nor do I believe in the stories in the bible, other than a way to control others.
    All warfare is class warfare. This much I know, though even the rich are slaves to their own beliefs. Until we evolve into beings who do love their neighbors, and do love themselves, we will continue to bicker among ourselves as we do today.
    I know this doesn’t help much, but it’s the best I can do right now. Thank you so very much for writing this post. Just by raising the issue, one does a lot to resolving it. And if everyone did something every day to make the world better for someone else, without damning another, the world would be a virtual paradise. Thanks again, Jim

  10. Dingo, I’m sorry about your cookies!

    You bring up an important point, and it’s one that gets to the heart of what I’m asking about here; is it fruitful – or even possible – to quantify suffering? Is one person’s experience of anything more or less than another’s? Are we doing a disservice to ourselves and each other when we say that one struggle for human rights is more valid because one group suffered “more” than someone else did (or does)? How do we set the criteria? Does a person who’s tortured and murdered suffer more than a person who’s executed instantly by a bullet to the head? Both are equally dead. What about the people who belong to a particular group who have not, personally, “suffered”? Who determines the criteria?

    I think this is at the essential heart of this question, really; we’re categorizing – and, frankly, prioritizing – suffering. That, on an elemental level, feels profoundly wrong to me.

    I don’t think it’s about scope or ferocity or duration, I think it’s about decency. While I recognize, as John stated, that we have to take history into account, for to do otherwise would over-simplify and thereby render meaningless our discussion, I also think that it’s vital that we think in terms of NOW. Even aside from the fact that GLBTQ people have been, and are now, being lynched. even if there were no brutality involved, the basic struggle – for the recognition of essential personhood for ALL people – would still be (in my mind, at least) just as urgent.

    Jim, THANK you for your comments! You come from a position that seems to offer you a really fascinating perspective on all of this. While I don’t want to turn this into a conversation that focuses on religion (that’s just asking for trouble), I also recognize that the element of faith and what people do or do not accept as a result of that faith is essential to this conversation. The initial commentary that got me started on this line of questioning seemed to be focused purely on the question of the appropriateness of equating social movements, though we cannot have a conversation about either the capital-C Civil Rights Movement – nor the GLBTQ rights movement – without acknowledging the role that religion play(ed)(s) in the discussion. Oh, and I’m off to peruse your site; it looks as though we have a lot of thinking in common.

  11. Thank you first for you kind remarks, and also I did want to thank you for bringing the idea of quantifying suffering to my attention. It is such an obvious and thought provoking concept, yet never mentioned in the mainstream media, justice system, or government. Thank you very much, I hope to spread that concept with my limited readership. Peace, Jim

  12. k8

    I am not long on words and do not have anything to back me up. However, the conversation that took place in our house – where I live with Gay Boyfriend – after the election was heated and hard. He is a gay man who is flambouantly “out” and proud. I too, am proud of him for being who he is in this world – especially in the flaming RED state of conservatism that is South Dakota.

    But when I found out that he voted for a state-wide pro-life ammendment, there were fireworks. That seemed to be dichotomous and hypocritical to me and we never made peace on the issue- if only to stop arguing about it because I will never understand someone who was so desperate for approval of his rights as a gay man that sees it as his job to take rights away from a woman – lesbian or not.

  13. My dear Mrs. Chili, may the conundrums in your life be both challenging and delicious in 2009! Happy New Year!

  14. Pingback: Comparative Suffering « The Blue Door

  15. I can’t stop to read all the brilliant comments here just now, but civil rights and human rights are synonomous in my mind, as in many others. If the author of the letter thinks that there were no GLB slaves, I think he’s fooling himself. People are people.

    (Also, if his ancestors are at the bottom of the ocean, how did he make it across to dry land?)

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