19 March 2014

Echoes From A Birmingham Jail (Part Two)

Coretta Scott King

Dr. King shared my annoyance with those who counsel the disenfranchised to wait for justice. Wait until a court victory is certain! Wait until there’s less bigotry in the culture! Wait until the political winds start blowing in your direction! He heard all those kinds of warnings. MLK certainly wasn’t blind to the political realities of his day; but as a minister of the Gospel, he saw himself spearheading a moral crusade!

He knew that a moral crusade couldn’t align itself to a partisan political timetable and retain its credibility! He also knew that African-American equality would never be a priority for politicians counting on the votes of racist constituents for re-election. In 1963, that category included John F. Kennedy, the man Barack Obama has frequently been compared to. Dr. King and his civil rights marchers couldn't count on President Kennedy to do the right thing. They had no choice but to crash his dinner party! They had to create tension in the Kennedy administration and lay groundwork for progress on racial issues. This is what LGBT "leadership" fails to grasp! Much of it blanches at the idea of protest rallies and marches. They seem to think the Democratic Party can and will do most of our work for us. Just when did "career politician" and "Gay Rights activist" become interchangeable terms? Far too many people are sold on this wacky idea, even though Dr. King yanked the rug out from under it nearly 50 years ago:

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well-timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied" . . .

Dr. King also shared Rosa Parks’ impatience with life as a marginalized citizen (see my 2008 Christ, The Gay Martyr essay titled "Save The Country”, Parts One and Two). He didn't suffer segregation laws silently, and I doubt he would understand today's calls for Gay people to tolerate ongoing injustices like DOMA and the US military's "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy! The most important thing about his Birmingham Jail letter is that it made palpable for millions of White Americans the sting of bigotry’s lash on the backs of their Black compatriots. See if you don't feel it, too, all these years later:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim . . . when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your Black brothers and sisters . . . when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society . . . when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children . . . when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do White people treat colored people so mean?". . . when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you . . . when you are humiliated day-in and day-out by nagging signs reading "White" and "Colored" . . . when your first name becomes "n*gger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs." . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments . . . when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobody-ness", then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

How can anyone counsel patience when every day, Lesbian, Gay and Transsexual citizens are victims of murder or attempted murder? When every day, LGBT school children are beaten up and taunted with ugly slurs they’re too young to even understand? When every day, mainstream preachers, bishops, rabbis, imams and Popes spew dehumanizing definitions of gender-blended people and call it doctrine? When every day, Lesbians and Gay men of faith are subjected to psychological torture in bizarre “ex-Gay” programs designed to stamp shame on their hearts?

When every day, Gay couples avoid kissing or holding hands in public for fear of being harassed, assaulted or killed? When every day, Gay policemen and firemen stay closeted for fear that their colleagues will desert them in a life-threatening situation? When every day, qualified soldiers, sailors and airmen lose their military careers because they refuse to lie about who they are? When every day, Gay or Gay-appearing men enter the prison system and administrators leave them vulnerable to terrorism and rape by other prisoners?

When every day, LGBT folk who work with or care for children live in terror that they’ll be fired by employers who equate them with pedophiles? When every day, textbooks and other literature depicting LGBT folk in a positive manner is challenged for curriculum inclusion and/or banned from libraries? When every day, children of blended gender are disowned by their parents, and parents of blended gender are forbidden access to their children?

When every day, a same-gender spouse is denied the right to visit her sick partner in the hospital, or claim her deceased spouse’s body, or attend her wife's funeral? When every day, religious Right Wing strategists huddle in their million-dollar complexes and dream up draconian ballot initiatives to separate Gay citizens from their Constitutional rights? When every day, our tax money funds “faith-based” public services from churches that not only refuse to hire us but also fuel the bigoted environment that creates the other intolerable situations I’ve discussed here?

It appalls me that so many of us have made peace with life under these conditions! We act as if second-class citizenship were a privilege instead of an insult! If I have to read another op-ed like this one by Pansexual actor Alan Cummingpresuming to tell me what rights LGBT folk should or shouldn’t want, so help me, I’ll go postal!

I'm sure that some of you will compare my list of grievances with that of Dr. King, and you'll come away saying: “African-Americans have suffered far more than LGBT Americans ever have!” Others will come away thinking the opposite. Personally, I don't go there. Why should I? Why should you? What's to be gained by comparing levels of oppression? That’s hardly the point.

The point is what Dr. King said about injustice: All Americans lose when any American is deprived of his rights! When we fail to honor our founding principles, our nation stops being a democracy and begins morphing into a fascist state. However, when we enforce civil rights for every citizen, we set a shining democratic standard that people all over the world are inspired to strive for. Organized Christianity’s stance on LGBT equality notwithstanding, we also set a standard similar to the one Jesus Christ set for His followers. You know . . . that mushy stuff about loving others as we love ourselves?

By the way, the Savior never said Christians should wait until it was easy to meet that standard! He commanded us to meet it immediately, or risk losing our souls to Satan. The Ken Hutchersons and Joseph Lowerys and Rick Warrens of the world are tardy in carrying out their boss’s orders. Please! Let’s not write an excuse for them! Let's not give them permission to dawdle any longer. Let's insist that they live up to the title "Christian", and do it right now and not later!

How about a couple more excerpts from Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"?  I'm sure you won't mind:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here . . .

MLK was referring to African-Americans here, but he surely could’ve been talking about LGBT folk. You know what? He really was talking about us! Does anyone doubt that there were Lesbians, Gay men, Pansexual and Transsexual persons among the Black slaves? We already know from historical accounts that the Native tribes Conquistadores found in the New World included Transgender people. What about some of those Pilgrims, too? We tend to marginalize ourselves so completely, we forget that we're all members of other social groups. It's high time we started remembering!

If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Allow me the liberty of paraphrasing Dr. King's words a bit: If the dark days of imprisonment and institutionalization prior to the Stonewall rebellion couldn’t silence us. . . if the pain of ostracism, ridicule and bullying as children couldn’t break our spirits . . . if the scourges of drug abuse, alcoholism, AIDS and breast cancer couldn’t wipe us out of existence . . . if relentless attacks from thousands of Right Wing televangelists couldn’t drive us back into the closet . . . if the passage of 29 marriage protection amendments couldn’t spoil our appetite for equal treatment . . . and if the traitorous boosters of heterosexism among us don’t succeed in their efforts to turn us off the road to full citizenship, the opposition we now face will surely fail!

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation, the righteousness of LGBT identity, and the eternal will of God, upon whose Transgender image we are modeled, are embodied in our proud demands. Believe me, it’s no accident that the inspiring messages of Martin Luther King, Jr. transcend racial applications; they were meant to! The provisions of our Federal Constitution transcend them as well.

This Black vs. Gay conflict over terminology is beyond ludicrous! It’s nothing but thinly-veiled antipathy coming from a bunch of Black bigots (both African-American and African). What infuriates me most, though, is the apparently widespread notion among Gay pundits that Black Gay people don’t exist! Ever heard of actor Paul Winfield? He was born Black and Gay. How about playwright Lorraine Hansberry? She was born Black and a Lesbian. Jazz arranger Billy Strayhorn was born Black and Gay, too. So were Blues singer Alberta Hunter, Hollywood choral director Hall Johnson, writer James Baldwin, and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. A couple of these people were important figures in the struggle for African-American equality, along with the aforementioned Bayard Rustin.

Being Gay didn’t make any of them less Black! Being Black didn’t make any of them less Gay! Most important, being either didn’t make any of them less deserving of their Constitutional protections. Quite a document, our Constitution; read it, if you get the chance! Ditto for the written works of Martin Luther King, Jr., a source of endless inspiration.  Whatever you do, don’t ever let anybody get away with telling you Gay Rights aren’t civil rights!

Read Dr. King’s complete, unedited "Letter from a Birmingham Jail".
Originally published on New Year's Day 2009.

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