Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More on Bearing Witness: The Contribution of People of Color to Recent Debates about Gay Rights

Following last week’s New York Senate vote against same-sex marriage, I blogged about my commitment to a politics of bearing witness. I wrote,

I have committed my life, it seems to me, to the belief that moral witness ought to count for something in the political and cultural arenas. I believe, fundamentally, in a politics of giving witness. I believe that when people pour out their hearts in witness to moral values, as a number of senators in New York did this week when the New York Senate considered same-sex marriage, something ought to happen. We ought not to receive such witness in dead silence.

And its that belief in the importance of bearing witness that compels me to speak out now about an aspect of the New York Senate discussion that I haven’t yet addressed. It’s important, I think, to note who took the political risk of speaking out in last week’s debate—who put his or her political reputation on the line while others calculated and tested the prevailing winds, and chose the safe rather than the right thing to do.

A significant proportion of those who spoke out in last week’s New York Senate discussion to articulate the decent, the merely humane, thing to do were members of the Jewish and African-American communities. In my view, it is important that the LGBT community recognize the statement of solidarity that two other minority communities made last week, in what took place in the New York legislature.

In particular, I want to focus on what the support of African-American members of the New York Senate should mean, in my judgment, to members of the LGBT community. (And I don’t mean to overlook or downplay the Jewish community’s support for the LGBT community here; in concentrating on the relationship between the black and gay communities, I’m focusing on an area in which healing needs primarily to occur.) There has been strong tension between the black and gay communities in the U.S., and that tension has been growing rather than diminishing after the election of Mr. Obama—in part, because the president’s election coincided with the roll-back of same-sex marriage in California, as media commentary suggested that African-American voters in California played a key role in passing prop 8.

I have written on this blog about the growing tension between these two minority communities. I have also taken note of Coretta Scott King’s appeal to the African-American community to overcome its homophobia. I’ve noted my own experience of deeply painful and corrosive homophobia as a white gay man working for many years in historically black colleges. And at the same time, I’ve lambasted the considerable racism that continues to exist within white gay communities in the U.S., and which undoubtedly elicits reactive homophobia among some people of color.

Because I have written about all of these topics, it’s incumbent on me—it’s part of my obligation to bear witness—to give thanks for the strong support that many African-American members of the New York Senate offered the LGBT community last week, as same-sex marriage was debated. Again and again, it was people of color who stood up to note that our nation represents a yet-to-be-finished experiment in democracy that has a history of conspicuous blind spots as it professes to be about liberty and justice for all. African-American senators noted the gradual, conflicted process by which American democracy first enfranchised non-property owners, then women, then people of color. African-American Senate members made a powerful, incontrovertible connection between the historic struggle of people of color for rights in the U.S., and the current struggle of the gay community for rights.

It was, notably, senators of color who articulated the moral case for justice last week in the New York Senate, while a majority of senators who want to tout themselves as preeminent defenders of morality sat in stony silence listening to this testimony, not ever seeking to counter it or to justify their decision to vote against same-sex marriage. The point I’d hope the LGBT community in the U.S. could begin to see more clearly after what happened in the New York Senate is this: it is precisely the experience of unjust marginalization that people of color (and Jews) experience in American society which propels many members of these marginalized communities to make solidarity with their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Solidarity that reaches across the boundary lines of one’s own particular marginalized community is powerful solidarity. One reason the religious and political right has worked overtime in recent years to drive a wedge between the LGBT and black communities (and has exported homophobia to places like Uganda) is that the right knows very well how effective and powerful solidarity between all marginalized communities in the U.S. would be, if it ever truly happened. When Martin Luther King developed his poor people’s coalition and marched on Washington to protest not only racism, but the Vietnam War and economic injustice, he became a serious threat to the powers that be in this nation—who wanted him stopped at all costs. Even more than they had wanted him stopped when his exclusive goal was combating racism . . . .

It’s important that the LGBT community recognize that African-American religious and political leaders who speak out to condemn discrimination against gays and lesbians often pay a considerable price for their moral courage. There are exceptionally strong pressures within many African-American communities for African-American leaders either to remain silent about these matters, or to parrot the party line of the religious right. Those pressures are being massaged by powerful, wealthy right-wing interest groups. Those pressures have also been in full view in Washington, D.C., recently, as leading black religious figures have fought tooth and nail against gay rights initiatives in the nation’s capital.

But even as these religious leaders have vocally expressed their opposition to gay rights, other remarkable people of color including Michael Crawford and Rev. Cedric Harmon have spoken strongly and loudly about the need for societies that want to claim to be humane to treat everyone with dignity and respect. These African-American leaders and many others have dared to face ostracism from some members of their own community, as they give voice to their consciences in debates about gay rights even knowing that they will pay a price for speaking out.

As I think about the dynamics—about the moral courage and witness to the supremacy of conscience—that have led a number of my African-American friends to step out and take strong public stands against anti-gay discrimination, I keep remembering something that poet Adrienne Rich said some years ago. This was in a book of essays that included an essay describing her experience teaching in an inner-city school. I don’t recall the title, but I do recall vividly some observations Rich makes in this set of essays.

In the essay about her time teaching high-school youth in an economically deprived urban area, I recall Adrienne Rich noting that young folks who grow up in impoverished settings often resist the kinds of insights that progressive political activists want to teach, when we come into such schools as savior figures. But when progressive insights reach students in marginal communities, Rich notes, students in these communities become committed to working for social change in a way that far surpasses the commitment of young people in affluent liberal communities, for whom progressive insights are presumably old hat.

I recall Rich quoting Daniel Berrigan at this point. In fact, I remember Rich noting that Berrigan spoke about the resistance he encountered when he spoke about his anti-war activities in working-class schools. But, Berrigan noted, he preferred the support of students in those schools, after they had fought with him and found common ground with him through verbal sparring. He preferred such support to the lukewarm, polite, but ultimately vacuous support of more affluent students who listened to his words without putting up a fight, expressed agreement, and then went about their business untroubled by the message he had sought to bring them.

In my view, many African Americans who support gay rights do so because they have reached a point of conviction after having struggled seriously—and at a certain cost—with the issue of gay rights. Please note that I’m not saying that the African-American community is homogeneous, or that all African-Americans are working-class.

What I want to note here is that, within many African-American communities, there are strong pressures confronting those who call for honest, open discussion of matters of sexual orientation, and these are akin go the dynamics students in economically deprived communities sometimes encounter when they struggle to understand cultural and political battles that seem, on the face of it, to have little to do with the experience of privation faced by these students.

What I am saying is that when people pay a price for arriving at a moral conviction, the political solidarity that flows from that conviction is likely to far more solid than is the solidarity of those who do not pay a price for their solidarity—and whose solidarity may lack any moral underpinnings at all. For this reason, I applaud the witness that Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and other African-American senators in New York bore last week, and I am grateful for their courage in giving witness—and to bloggers like Fran Rossi-Szpylczyn for highlighting this witness.

The graphic is the FBI's listing for Dr. Martin Luther King in its Rabble Rouser Index, 1967.