We can get into trouble, especially in the USA, by connecting the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, or gay persecution to the NAZIs. “Racism” in the USA means the prejudicial attitudes and actions of white (Caucasian) people against black (Negro) people. All other racial prejudice is hyphenated, labeled something else, or best left out of the discussion. Very often gay activists have linked the gay struggle for equal rights and recognition to the US Civil Rights struggle of the post-World-War II era. Just as often black activists have objected, insisting that the humiliation, injustice and suffering of black people is unparalleled in human history, or at least in US history. In similar ways Jewish activists object to the mention of gays and lesbians in the same breath as the NAZI Holocaust. The Holocaust was a Jewish event. What the NAZIs did to others is of a different order.
My suggest is that we leave the defining moments of history to those defined by them. The Holocaust was a threshold event for world Jewry and the modern history of Judaism. One outcome is the modern state of Israel. Jewish identity, how a Jew thinks of himself or herself, has the Holocaust as an aspect of it. It is mystical but powerful. The US Civil Rights Movement abolished institutional and official segregation from American society, and installed black citizens into social and political processes to such an extent that the USA now has a black President. The US Civil Rights Movement was a coming-of-age or re-identification process that changed almost everything for black people in America.
The merits of my suggestion notwithstanding, there are connections, and they keep popping up. August 28, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of THE EVENT of the Civil Rights Movement, the “March on Washington” with its highlight, the iconic “I’ve Got a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ossie Davis, the master of ceremony for the event told the throng on the Washington Mall that Bayard Rustin was “the man who organized this whole thing.” He was the key thinker behind the whole Civil Rights Movement, as well. The Civil Rights Movement was so successful that twenty years after the march Rustin commented:
“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays…. It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change…. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people.”
Like much of Rustin’s life, his comment was controversial. It was also prophetic…like so much of his life. Rustin was a black activist gay advocate for social change. Last year he would have been 100. Last week he was posthumously awarded the US Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, this decade’s most influential advocate of gay civil rights.
Black rights, gay rights: Rustin is a link.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.