Two days ago, I puzzled, as I frequently do here, over the seeming inability of the "good" people of the world to hear the kind of testimony that Irish drag performer Panti Bliss recently offered in Dublin. Testimony about what it's like to live life in gay skin in a society whose norms are established and parsed by the good people she identified as ministers, senators, barristers, journalists, and nice middle-class folks like herself . . . .
I also wondered how it is that a critically important insight that's so apparent to a straight sportscaster in the not-so-liberal city of Dallas, Dave Hansen--that his life connects to the lives of gay men even when he himself doesn't totally get the gay thing--fails to capture the imagination of my fellow Catholics who constitute what I recently called club Catholic. The ministers, senators, barristers, journalists, and nice middle-class folks, so to speak, who set the tone of American Catholicism and determine the boundaries of the conversation that defines its identity . . . .
The Commonweal Catholics . . . . Many of whom, though they're highly educated academics and widely-read influential journalists, seem to have great difficulty imagining that their Catholic lives connect in any way to the lives of their fellow Catholics who are gay, and who are persistently treated by the Commonweal club as if they are outsiders. As if the very definition of club Catholic à la Commonweal is, Catholic ≠ homosexual.
We = Catholic. You homosexuals = the opposite.
I've puzzled over this dynamic ever since my life partner and I found ourselves permanently blocked from employment in Catholic universities as openly gay Catholic theologians, and no one among our academic colleagues or in the Catholic journalistic establishment--all folks who have a significant influence on establishing the definition of Catholicism for our culture--spoke out to protest what was done to us. No one did anything to keep open a space for us in that Catholic identity-defining conversation, even as they themselves retained the right to continue participating in this conversation about what it means to be catholic, to welcome and include everyone.
My posting about these issues on Friday also noted that, for me, the clear parallel between the dynamics of the struggle for the human rights of people of color that dominated my formative years in the American South and the current struggle for the human rights of LGBTI people is self-evident. It's obvious. And I take for granted that what Martin Luther King repeated over and over about the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s applies as well to the current struggle for gay rights: that is, that one of the most resistant forces with which he and other Civil Rights leaders had to contend as they struggled for human rights was not the blatantly resistant minority of underclass whites who practiced outright violence against those demonstrating for rights for African Americans.
It was the more subtle, more intractable, and very hidden resistance of the "good" people who stood by in complete silence as the violent minority enacted its violence. It was the pretense of the "good" people, the ministers, senators, barristers, journalists, who deplored the violence of their white underclass brothers, that they were in no shape, form, or fashion implicated in that violence, when, as Diane McWhorter discovered as she set out to investigate who was responsible for the Birmingham church bombings in 1963, there were strong but hidden lines of connection between those very "good" people and those who actually set the bombs in place beneath the churches in which children were murdered.
McWhorter's book Carry Me Home is a painful account of her discovery that her own father, a prominent local lawyer, the son of another prominent Harvard-educated lawyer, may have not been so remote from the actual sources of the church bombings as he claimed to be. McWhorter's research led her to the conclusion that, though the social elite of Birmingham professed to deplore the violence of underclass whites during the Civil Rights struggle, there were strong, if undisclosed, ties between that elite and those who acted out the violence that issued in bombing of churches in which children were killed.
There were, in short, few "good" white people during the Civil Rights struggle--as King pointed out over and over. There were many of us who stood by in silence, shaking our heads, claiming to deplore the violence . . . but doing nothing. And among those many of us who stood by in silence, there were also many who were actually involved in the violence about which we shook our heads, and which we claimed to deplore--involved by more than silent complicity, involved through carefully disguised connections that helped counsel those who acted out racial violence, and helped shield the perpetrators of violence when their identities came to the surface.
What McWhorter discovered as she did the research for her book struck a sympathetic chord for me immediately when I read her book, since her discoveries were very close to painful revelations of my own that I've sketched in postings here, in which I had to confront my finding that my own father, also a lawyer, cut back-room deals with Klan members as he ran for a judge's seat in south Arkansas in the latter half of the 1960s, and as he took me with him on his campaign trail. My coming of age process involved coming to recognize that many--perhaps most--of the judicial officials of my community had unacknowledged ties to the very people committing lawless acts of violence against people of color in my community, and who were either ignored by the judicial system as they engaged in acts of racial terrorism, or were exonerated when they were charged with terroristic racial violence.
I also pointed out in a posting on Friday that, in judicial rulings last week in Virginia and its daughter state of Kentucky--both former slave states--two federal judges, Arenda Wright Allen and John G. Heyburn II, drew explicit parallels between the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-20th century and the struggle for human rights for gay citizens of the U.S. today. Wright Allen framed her discussion of the right to civil marriage for gay citizens by noting the case of Loving v. Virginia, in which an interracial couple challenging Virginia's ban on interracial marriage appealed the decision of Judge Leon Bazile, who had declared,
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
Judge Heyburn also directly addressed the argument that same-sex couples ought not to be permitted to enjoy the right to civil marriage because God/the bible/many citizens' religious views/many citizens' consciences forbid such marriage, noting the explicit parallels to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, in which many citizens advanced precisely the same arguments in support of racial segregation--and were eventually declared out of bounds in doing so. As he stated,
For years, many states had a tradition of segregation and even articulated reasons why it created a better, more stable society. In time, even the most strident supporters of these views understood that they could not enforce their particular moral views to the detriment of another’s constitutional rights.
And so the puzzle with which I'm left by these rulings, and the growing tendency of judges in Southern states, the states that know most intimately the bogus argument that religious conviction ought to afford citizens "religious freedom" to discriminate against targeted minorities: why is it, I wonder, that so many of the "good" people who now argue for their "right" under rubrics of "religious freedom" to discriminate against others on grounds of sexual orientation refuse to see that they are very similar to--they're, in fact, the current incarnation of--the very same "good" people who did everything in their power to keep the system of racial segregation alive in the American South in the 20th century?
As I ask this question, I'm fascinated by some clues offered by Andrew Sullivan at his Dish site in recent days, as he chews over both what happened in Virginia last week, and what's happening in Kansas. As a conservative, Sullivan has not been inclined to draw clear and strong parallels between the U.S. Civil Rights struggle of the 20th century and the struggle for gay rights today. He has been inclined to defend the rights of those who object on grounds of conscience to laws that they consider violations of conscience--as he did recently with the Little Sisters of the Poor and their case against Obamacare.
In venerable Burkean fashion, he fears that the Moral Monday marchers in North Carolina represent a kind of mob on the left side of the center that is every bit as surly and dangerous as the mobs on the right who are typified by the Kansas house in its actions against gay citizens of that state last week. Sullivan believes in a kind of center that is best occupied by the rational, sane, non-ideological "good" folks like himself who set the tone for a well-balanced society that veers neither too sharply right nor too sharply left.
And because Sullivan carries these presuppositions to his discussions of the gay rights movement, he shies away from parallels between the Civil Rights struggle of the 20th century and the current struggle for gay rights--because he wants to protect the right of those who protest against gay rights today to make conscientious decisions about these matters without being stigmatized as the current incarnation of 1960s segregationists.
Notice, then, the photo with which he heads his Dish posting last week about what just took place in Kansas. And his conclusion that the decision of the Kansas house to push through legislation that may, we're now being told, not pass the state senate's muster, is "a misstep because it so clearly casts the anti-gay movement as the heirs to Jim Crow."
Then look at Sullivan's posting about the Virginia marriage equality decision, in which he notes that Rod Dreher bridles at the Virginia decision and its parallel between segregationists of the mid-20th century and those opposing gay rights now: Dreher writes,
Traditional Christians are all segregationists now. The federal judiciary is making that clear. The rout that many of us have seen coming is upon us.
And Sullivan replies,
Well, Rod, if you act like segregationists, what do you expect?
The link in the preceding sentence points back to Sullivan's posting about what just happened in Kansas, with its photo of a lunch-counter sit-in in Richmond in 1960.
The question with which all of this leaves me: when will conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher, or the centrists who dominate so much of our political discourse today even as poll after poll shows the American people as a whole falling well to the left of what these folks call center on almost any issue under the sun: when will all these "good" people begin to recognize that "good" people like themselves may well not provide the most courageous, morally salubrious, and redemptive solutions to vexing social problems?
But that those who live on the margins, and struggle most stringently to fashion human lives against the odds on the margins--with none of the advantages that "good" people such as I myself have--might be leading the way for the rest of us to a brighter, more humane society? If we could only find ways to hear their testimony . . . .