In his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the white moderates who sided with him on the issue of civil rights but who were reluctant to act, who told him to have patience and wait: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” It’s something that has stayed with me since I first read the text over a decade ago, and in the wake the passage of Proposition 8 (the California initiative that defines “marriage” in the state constitution as a union between a man and a woman, and which was largely funded by the Mormon Church and disproportionately supported by the African-American community compared to other racial groups), King’s words have never felt more prescient.
In the midst of an economic meltdown, and with the moguls of the Big Three automakers arriving in Washington to, as one legislator astutely put it, beg for money like someone showing up for lunch at a soup kitchen in a top hat and tails, the Office of the President-elect has unveiled the details of Barack Obama’s agenda for, among other things, civil rights. The plan proposes to expand hate crime statutes, as Obama did as an Illinois State senator, expand federal anti-discrimination employment laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity, repeal the U.S. Military’s misguided “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and expand adoption rights (an important stance considering the precedent set by a new ban on adoption for unmarried couples in Arkansas, a state with a shameful foster-care record).
Obama’s position on the issue of gay marriage, however, is mixed at best. He opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and even went on record in opposition of Prop 8, but he also opposes using the word “marriage” for gays and lesbians, preferring the much-ballyhooed institution of “civil unions” instead. Some, including myself, have asserted that civil unions should be enough, that progress takes time and change comes in measured steps. But if he were alive today, where would Martin Luther King stand on the issue? “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” he wrote from his jail cell on the margins of newspapers and on toilet paper. “It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” Patience, it seems, is not a virtue of those who seek true progress, and the problem with civil unions is that it’s akin to being granted your very own water fountain. In short: separate but equal.
There are some who believe that likening the gay rights movement of today with the civil rights movement of the 1960s is inappropriate, even insulting. “Homosexuals have no shame when it comes to exploiting every noble social movement in our culture,” Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition belched with stunning bigotry last year in response to a House resolution that cited interracial marriage as a precedent for the legalization of same-sex marriage. No, the plight of the gay couple that wishes to wed or start a family is not analogous to the oppression of the black man who was forbidden to order a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. But hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation have steadily increased in recent years, from 12% of all reported hate crimes in 1996 to 16% last year, and less than half of the states in the union have included sexual orientation as part of their hate-crime legislation. More importantly, the gay liberation movement of the mid-20th century was concurrent with the civil rights movement, if not an integral part of it, and King was cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. The oppression of one group is the oppression of all groups. And what happens in Alabama, or California, or Arkansas, affects the entire country.
White gays and lesbians have both benefited and suffered from living in the shadows. Concealing one’s sexuality is a mode of self-preservation, an evasion of the oppression other minority groups have endured out in the open. But the cost of that lack of visibility—whether voluntary or not—has been, perhaps, a delay in progress. There have undoubtedly been a few gay American presidents over the last two centuries, but what is the likelihood that we will see an openly gay commander-in-chief in our lifetime? (To say nothing of the fact that a straight actor like Sean Penn is showered with accolades for portraying Harvey Milk, while his gay colleagues remain stuffed in their closets for fear of losing their jobs.)
As minority group populations continue to surge, with whites likely becoming a minority in the United States by 2050, the gay population will remain more or less the same, meaning progress in the voting booth will only be as swift as the general population’s enlightenment is profound. “Lamentably,” King wrote, “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as [American theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Courts, then, exist to protect minority groups when ballot initiatives won’t. In his examination of the Prop 8 aftermath, The Huffington Post columnist Byron Williams observed: “Imagine if after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0, as they did, in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, officially ending de jure segregation, the Southern region of the United States were allowed to place a pro Jim Crow initiative on the ballot for a vote several months after the ruling.” Allowing the masses to rule on the fate of minorities is nonsensical; permitting a state’s Constitution to be altered in the voting booth is even more absurd. I suppose there’s something to be said for that antiquated idea of elected representation after all.
The Mormon Church, which dumped over $20 million into the campaign for Prop 8 (that’s over 60% of the total money spent), has been the primary target of criticism by gay rights advocates, but the leaders of a large number of African-American churches were also active supporters of the measure. The operative word here is “churches,” not “African-American.” (The raw numbers don’t support the theory that blacks were responsible for the passage of Prop 8, but either way, the propaganda and lies that were used to push the agenda—that homosexuality would be taught to young schoolchildren, that priests and pastors would be jailed if they refused to perform gay weddings—is to blame.) King wrote to his fellow clergymen: “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Or the 21st. Recent polls have revealed a generational gap on the issue of gay marriage, with even religious young voters moving in a more progressive direction. Opponents of gay marriage might look to co-opt the very words in King’s letter, just as they have twisted passages from the Bible: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God,” King wrote. But he also said, “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” The church, like his country, disappointed King deeply because he loved both deeply, and though he was a proud man of God, it’s quite clear where he would stand today—on the side of justice, consciousness, the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. He would refuse to subscribe to the irrational concept that time would inevitably cure all of society’s ills and inequities. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once famously said, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and to King, the word “wait” almost always meant “never.”
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.