Friday, May 15, 2009

A Reader Writes: What About Patience in the Struggle for Gay Rights?

A very sharp reader of this blog asks a good question following my posting yesterday about Marion Barry’s observation that some sectors of the black community are “just adamant” in their opposition to gay rights today. My posting argues that it is impossible to understand President Obama’s reluctance to engage gay issues directly now without paying attention to the developing backlash against gay rights among some of the president’s staunchest supporters, churched African Americans.

In response, Phillip notes that patience is a virtue. He asks if gays and lesbians should perhaps view this time of hesitancy on the part of the new president to address gay concerns as a time to exercise patience.

This is a good question. Patience is certainly an important virtue, and a necessary component of adult life. People can’t always have what they want precisely when they want it. We would never grow in adult understanding of the world if all our needs were immediately gratified, as they sometimes are when we’re infants. As Teresa of Avila pointed out re: the spiritual life, part of our growth in spirituality is learning to have our desires themselves purified, so that we begin to hope and ask for what is truly important to us, and not merely gratifying at the moment.

I noted in yesterday’s posting that I’ve been following blog discussions of gay issues in the African-American community. Some of these are discussions to which one of my favorite bloggers, Pam Spaulding, has been linking. Others I’ve discovered through links on progressive blogs and news sites I follow daily.

A prominent theme in these discussions is the encouragement of the gay community by some members of the black community to wait—wait your turn, be patient, learn to accept privation and gradual, impartial fulfillment of your needs for justice and rights as we African Americans have done. Bloggers offering this advice note that it took many decades before the United States began to recognize the rights of people of color and respond proactively to the situation of systemic injustice in which people of color have found themselves in the United States.

This is certainly valuable advice. Gay people asking that our human rights be fully recognized in American society today have strong reason to study the long, hard march on which people of color have walked over the course of American history—and on which they remain, in a nation in which racism remains alive and well. All movements to claim the human rights of persecuted minorities are interconnected, and we who experience unjust marginalization refuse solidarity with other marginalized communities at our own peril. When anyone’s rights are denied, everyone’s claim to equal and just treatment is undermined.

With these provisos as my frame, I’d like to pay some attention to the subtext of the advice of some members of the African-American community today to members of the gay community, to wait our turn, be patient, accept gradual and partial fulfillment of our aspirations to justice.

Ironically, that subtext is apparent to me as a white gay man primarily because I grew up during the civil rights struggle in the American South. One of the most persistent complaints I heard then, as a white Southerner among other white Southerners, was the insistence that black folks wanted everything now. Why can’t they wait? Why is everything about their rights? Don’t other folks have rights, too? Give us time, and we’ll do what is right—but you can’t expect us to do it all overnight, can you? We will move ahead with all deliberate speed if you will just back off and stop getting in our face.

Those were the incessant whispers I heard all through the circles of white society in the South in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Buried deep within these self-serving complaints and false promises to address the question of rights was the judgment that African Americans were childish, impatient, touchy people who were making inordinate demands on everyone else, regarding the fulfillment of their rights.

This discourse infantilized people of color. It turned their very demands for justice now (because justice deferred is really justice denied) into yet another reason for deferring justice as long as we could to some unimaginable future in which people really care about the rights of others. It legitimated the continued resistance of white people to the legitimate demands of African Americans for equal rights by bolstering up stereotypes of people of color as whining, never satisfied children undeserving of adult boons like equal rights.

The grand irony of much of the current discourse emanating from African-American communities—particularly churched ones—re: the gay community is that it replicates, in a new social context, precisely what white people in the South said to and about people of color during the civil rights period. Just as we Southern whites, under the guise of (totally bogus) Christian concern for the souls of our impatient and childish black brothers and sisters, encouraged people of color to develop some patience because we did not intend to listen to their legitimate demands to be treated as equals, many people of color today counsel patience for the gay community without intending in any shape, form, or fashion, ever to engage the legitimate demands of gay citizens to be accorded justice.

No one saw the hidden dynamics of the gradualist approach to black civil rights more clearly than Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King recognized that the foot-dragging gradualism of some black and many white churches in the South faced with the moral claims of the civil rights movement was a dodge: it was a way of escaping responsibility to do something about injustice. To do something when it matters. Now.

King’s brilliant strategy as a civil rights activist—a strategy that owed much to Gandhi—was to stage confrontational (albeit non-violent) moments in which, he hoped, the all-pervasive racism of American society would suddenly become apparent to many of us who had managed to keep our eyes closed about that racism. And about what it meant, concretely, in the lives of other human beings like ourselves, who happened to live life in skins of a different pigmentation than our own.

What King saw about the civil rights movement is that it is, at its very heart, a moral movement—one that begins with moments of moral insight in which I suddenly see what has been hidden from me, and seeing, find myself compelled to act. I find myself compelled to act because if I see and then do nothing I become complicit in injustice, an active agent of an injustice I previously passively tolerated. I diminish myself when my eyes are opened and I then ignore what I see, and its claim on my life.

The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., ironically—and tragically—exposes people of color today who refuse to see and to act on the conditions of injustice in which they expect their gay brothers and sisters to live. It exposes those who refuse to see and to act as less than moral, as immoral—not as the moral exemplars that they claim to be, and which their churches (both black and white) encourage them to be, in resisting gay rights and scorning gay human beings. It raises the question of how a group who once would not have taken no, and should not have taken no, as an answer when they asked for their rights now can justify doing to another disempowered group what they rightly refused to accept in their own case.

Enough ah-ha moments have happened in American history in recent decades that we now cannot fail to see what is at stake in gay lives and in the deferring of justice to gay human beings—and seeing, to act. That is, we cannot fail to see and to act, if we hope to lay claim to the title of moral human beings. And if we hope to avoid diminishing our own humanity.

The prophetic witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., puts the lie to the argument that, in following a path of pragmatic political expedience when the rights of any marginalized group are up for grabs, we are following one among several possible moral paths. As King noted, once our eyes have been opened, there is no going back, and there is only one path ahead of us—if we wish to lay claim to being people motivated by moral considerations:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

After King, there is only one possible moral path for those who see the injustice of denying human rights to others: this is the path of solidarity and of action to make justice possible for those experiencing injustice. Certainly, we can spin all kinds of sound reasons for waiting, for pragmatic implementation of a justice-oriented platform, for holding the center, for ignoring the manifold ways in which the center is an arbitrary balance point that enshrines injustice, and so forth.

But what we cannot do with any integrity, after King, is claim that, in following this path of pragmatic, centrist expediency, we are behaving morally. After King, once our eyes are opened to the need for justice and we continue choosing to defer justice, we must once and for all forfeit the claim to be acting morally. Justice deferred is, after all, as Martin Luther King has forced us to see with stark clarity, justice denied.

One does not tell people denied rights to be patient and wait. One either makes solidarity with those denied rights and does everything in one's power to see that rights are granted them. Or one turns one's back and admits that one has chosen the immoral option. Seeing the needs of those subject to injustice and deliberately choosing to deny the claim those needs make on me is not morally permissible behavior
—not after I have listened to and learned from Martin Luther King, Jr.