Alex Blaze

Why there won't be a gay Martin Luther King

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 23, 2009 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, bisexual, civil rights movement, lesbian, LGBT, Martin Luther King Jr., movement, New York Times, transgender

I have had been plenty of discussions over the last few weeks, both here and elsewhere, that lead to the question: Where is the gay Martin Luther King? (I haven't heard anyone asking about the trans or bi MLK, but I guess these people are looking at it on a "First things first" basis.)

Even the New York Times took on the subject, in an appallingly idiotic article. More on that in a minute, but I have to ask just why people are so worried about a gay MLK emerging.

The reason usually given is: We need someone to speak for us. To which I respond: we already have millions of people speaking for us; don't shut them up! Of course, they mean for our consensus, someone who can credibly speak for all of our interests at once.

The NY Times article puts it like this:

Yet the gay rights movement, which is about to enter its fifth decade, has never had a such a leader despite making remarkable strides in a relatively short period of time.

Gay people have no national standard-bearer, no go-to sound-byte machine for the media. So when President Obama last week extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, there was no alpha gay leader to respond with the movement's official voice, though some activists criticized the president for not going far enough.

Oh, heavens! No go-to sound-byte machine for the media! Everyone agrees that that's all Martin Luther King was, so how will we ever be heard?

Martin Luther King wasn't a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who worked without dispute or discussion (what we in the LGBT movement often dismiss as "in-fighting" or "catty queens"). There were plenty of discussions about tactics going on within that movement with some pretty famous disagreements. The protesters weren't marching lock-step like Republicans.

And there's no reason to think that we will or should either. We're coming from about as diverse of a background as a population as we could possibly be coming from: all sexes, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, ethnicities, religions, sectors of the economy, classes, income levels, political ideologies, and ages. No one can possibly speak for all the different interests at play, and there's no one who's going to be seen as credible by even a majority of the community.

Political ideology is hard enough. Would this queer MLK have the same politics as Andrew Sullivan? Rachel Maddow? Urvashi Vaid? Leslie Feinberg? Judith Butler? Imagine a person with the politics of the person on that list you disagree with most becoming the "leader" of the LGBT movement... would you be ready to shut up and fall in line?

That's, of course, the cartoon-version of MLK that people are promoting as they search for the LGBT MLK, and I know what they mean when they say we need someone to speak for us, someone that we can all rally behind: they want someone with their specific political beliefs to take over, butt a few heads together, and make everyone agree with them.

Our strength is our diversity, though. By virtue of being everywhere, we could have everyone's attention. That's what Harvey Milk was talking about when he said that everyone has to come out - we have a strength in our population that no other minority has ever had, and we should use it. The flip-side to that is that we'll never come close to agreeing on anything, but in 2009 and the rise of the netroots, we can still organize.

Another reason, that's often not mentioned, that I sense people are looking for a queer MLK is because they think it'll make things a whole lot easier. This is, of course, based on the truncated history of the Civil Rights Movement that says that it started in the 60's and ended a few years later and everything was alright afterwards, denying the work that was started during Reconstruction that continued into the 20's, the organizing that occurred during the Great Depression, the roots of the Civil Rights Movement in the 40's and 50's, and the fact that there's still work that needs to be done. Black people and white people still aren't equal.

This thing isn't supposed to be easy. And I think a lot of the anger from these past few weeks has been that people thought mistakenly that we had a gay MLK in Obama, hence all the language about "betrayal."

Anyway, the NY Times article cites two major reasons why we don't have a national consensus gay rights leader. First:

"The gay movement has always had a problem of achieving a dignity or a moral imperative that the black civil rights movement had, or the women's rights movement claimed," said Dudley Clendinen, who co-wrote the book "Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America" and now teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. "Because this movement is fundamentally about the right to be sexual, it's hard for the larger public to see that as a moral issue," he said.

By contrast, the moral authority that leaders like Dr. King, Ms. Friedan and Ms. Steinem could claim -- and the fact that Americans did not look at them and imagine their sex lives -- made it easier to build respectability with the public.

This is ridiculous. Everyone is sexual, and people aren't sitting around thinking about what Joe Solmonese is like in bed when they hear him speak (and if they do, then they're probably in the unmovable extreme-right). It's funny he should mention Friedan and Steinem, too, since second-wave feminism was all about getting men to stop treating women like sex objects. And yet somehow the Times was able to name them as feminist consensus leaders (and flatten the feminist movement by implying that they were able to speak for all women in the 60's and 70's).


Another reason for the absence of a nationally prominent gay leader is the highly local nature of the movement. Unlike the civil rights and the feminist movements, the gay movement lacked a galvanizing national issue.

In the 1950s and 1960s, black activists pushed for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and asserted their rights in the courts in cases like Brown v. Board of Education. Feminists campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.[...]

Many gay activists pursued a different approach, focusing on issues pertinent to their local communities. Though he has achieved celebrity status of late, Harvey Milk was a mere San Francisco city supervisor, without much in the way of a national profile, when he was assassinated in 1978.

City councils and state legislatures are where domestic partnership laws and legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians originated. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And of the six states that now allow same-sex marriage, three -- Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont -- legalized the practice through a vote by the state legislature, without prodding by a court.

"The issues of gay rights are mainly state issues, so the focus for activism is going to be on the local level," said David Eisenbach, a lecturer in history at Columbia University and the author of "Gay Power: An American Revolution."

There's just so much wrong with that. First, Harvey Milk didn't just achieve celebrity status recently; the gays knew who he was before the movie Milk came out (Cleve Jones, on the other hand...). Second, there are plenty of national issues to rally around. Sure, the progress of the last 10 years has focused on the state and local level, but I'd imagine that has less to do with the lack of work that needs to be done nationally and more to do with who was president and who controlled most of Congress for that time period.

These reasons don't make sense in the context of the current movement, but I think that the Times just has a hard time thinking of the LGBT population as the incredibly diverse group of people that we are. New York is a special place, and folks in a big city gay ghetto often (but not always) get the impression that gay means people like them.

Anyway, the point is that we don't need a consensus leader, and also that we shouldn't want one. We could have one right now if there was a queer person who talked to the media and everyone who disagreed with that person all bobbled their heads in agreement with her. But would you be willing to do that? Should this person say something you vehemently disagreed with, would you be willing to keep quiet and go along to get along?

I sure hope not. We're not going to win if we don't want to rock the boat, and we shouldn't be practicing that sort of behavior within the community. When we see injustice and incorrectness, we should call them out, as we see them. Speaking out is a great way to be heard.

And if you're still not convinced that we don't need a queer MLK, then just accept that if such a person is needed, she'll only appear organically. We can't nominate or vote for this person. A donor can't pick someone out and give her a salary and we'll all fall in line.

History has shown us that things just don't work that way.

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The last I read, all the major newspapers are going down the toilet, including the New York Times. I do not think that they are in a position to pontificate. Their lazy ass reporters could select among many leaders of major organizations, as well as find plenty of gay-on-the-street people to talk to anywhere in America. Everyone used to make fun of USA Today, aka "McPaper". Well, it's sound-byte length stories with no analysis have become the norm, even for the NYT.

How many f us really consider the local paper a source for news? I agree with the whole organic process. There was a lot that went into the perfect storm of MLK there was the face to the crowd but there was also a long historical record upon which to build and there was a master planner in the mix who actually got FDR to move on an issues during WWII.
We need someone to help us develop an historical context for our movement which has been going longer and did not justs start at Stonewall. Stonewall was a galvanizing point but it wasn't the start.
We need a Bayard Rustin operating for us. And then when there is an historical context and a master planner to be the king maker then we will have an opening for our own King.
But there was a lot going into that situation and the myopic view expressed in the popular press and school book historical version just does not inform us at all on the subject.
So how do we make history interesting enough for our folks to learn more about our movement? Who do we have as a mastermind?

Interesting points, Alex. Although I'd vote for Urvasi Vaid in a NY minute, you may be right that we're too diverse to support one leader.
That doesn't mean we couldn't support many. But, again, I think the community is too immature for a serious movement. Even now they're planning a party in DC, and I can just imagine what great pr it'll be for us.
The vast majority have never faced up to their internalized homophobia. Until they do, we'll never be able to field a competent leader, or even devise a workable political strategy.

Kevin Erickson | June 23, 2009 8:34 PM

the part that struck me as especially silly is the localism stuff. King spent a ton of time focusing on supporting local struggles.

David Phillips | June 23, 2009 8:59 PM

Whenever the mainstream media dive into crazy parallels between the Black civil rights movement and the LGBTQ civil rights movement, such as asking where the Gay MLK is, they're getting way more wrong than right in their ponderings. They foolishly portray iconic figures as necessary for galvanizing a disparate people, they mistake such figures as setting agendae, and they forget such figures as having an ability to speak in a manner that can be understood in-group and beyond. If anything, MLK and Malcolm X provided polarities for the Black civil rights movement--earnest longsuffering and non-violence vs. righteous self-determination and aggression--and each gathered followers who shared his POV, knowing that he could not speak for all.

For some time I have asked a different question relevant to figures like MLK and Malcolm X: where is the Queer voice of prophecy and exortation? As men steeped in faith, King and Shabazz provided not political calculations, conjectures, and promises to their people, but vision and encouragement to fight the fight at the local, state, and national levels. They claimed a more just society on behalf of their adherents and all Americans, spoke of it often eloquently, and cajoled followers and opponents into moving forward. They did not negotiate away the interests of their people with a Machiavellian flair, and they remained impatient with injustice, understanding the oppression and injustice are not inconvenient, but murderous to the spirit and the flesh. They did not court power or invitations to its halls -- King or Shabazz at a Juneteenth BBQ at The White House would have never happened; instead, refusing to compromise their moralities or their aims, regardless of the personal sacrifice required. Indeed, it's tough to find Queers like that today!

There is indeed a strong hunger for a gay hero, for a Joan of Arc. Many (not me) thought Obama would be our hero. I'm not sure why the gay community has produced many prophets but no messiah. Larry Kramer is a perfect example. Strong inspired voice but not a natural leader.

Gay bloggers and digital activists all have their prophetic and telling moments,but on the Poseidon, I don't think I'd follow any of us up that upside down Christmas tree. Most are verbose but with little insight or vision.

The galvanizing gay messiah may be among us. We may have already met him/her. Maybe his/her time has not yet come. I hope it comes soon. I want to live to recite the Canticle of Simeon. A gay "Nunc dimittis".

A. J. Lopp | June 24, 2009 1:43 PM

Simeon sang his canticle a few moments after the Baby Jesus was circumcized ... Father Tony, even that would cause a small riot among gay activists today!

Actually, I believe there was such a person.

Harvey Milk.

He fits *all* the requirements. Every last one.

He's already dead, though.

So the messiah came and went.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | June 23, 2009 11:39 PM

A gay Malcolm X would be more to the point. But still not enough. Not by a long shot.

The problem with Democrats is that, like their party, they're fundamentally antidemocratic. Honestly, why do we need a leader to tell us what to do and how to think? On the contrary, what we do need is democracy to tell our spokespersons and organizers what to do.

We need internal democracy in a nationwide mass action, militant LGBT coalition to voteon program and organizing strategies, test them, and then continually apply the results to needs of the movement. The antidemocratic approach of Democrats created the debacle on Prop 8, the gutting of ENDA, and the passage of DOMA and DADT.

And did I mention that we'll get nowhere until we publically break with the right centrist Democrats and their junior partners, the temporarily marginalized Republicans.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 24, 2009 1:33 AM

Gay MLK no,

"Catty Queens" or "infighting" unneeded.

A coalition of the strong who set aside their small agendas is what is needed rallying around a simple phrase:

"Service Above Self"

Our groups need to coordinate.

Bayard Rustin was the gay Martin Luther King and there are plenty of commenters on this blog that will verify that there would be no MLK without BR. I am tired of this nonsense. This feel good shit does not make me feel good at all.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 24, 2009 6:32 AM

But Rustin has only been dead for 22 years. Messiah number two. Can we learn something from these people that we can organization around core themes?

Tina said it best, although Babara Kruger illustrated it best: We don't need another hero.

A good organizing model for LGBTs? ACT UP/New York. A brilliant and effective organization in large part because power was decentralized, adamantly so. And because it was animated by the idea that we were all (or could be) experts. There is no doubt that an elite emerged in ACT UP, but it was based in large part (not entirely) on the fact that they were the ones who actually got things done.

A friend who runs an LGBT nonprofit recently spoke at my U, and when a student asked for her thoughts on leadership, she had a wonderful answer that went something like this: "A lot of being a leader is just following through. If you call the meeting for Tuesday and say you'll bring the cookies, and then you show up on Tuesday with the cookies in hand, you are perceived as the leader, just because you did what you said you were going to do."

We can all be experts. We can all be leaders. We can all bring the damn cookies when we say we're going to.

Great post, Alex. Thanks.

As Hodgman said, we are looking for a Kwisatz Haderach. But, of course, most of the contenders won't survive the spice agony.

Bravo, Alex, for so clearly analyzing this. A page of history is worth a volume of illogic. King didn't become canonized until he became a martyr. If the civil rights movement had had only one leader, African-Americans would still be waiting for the Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The problem is that there are several people who have the balls (literally) to think they are the MLK for the "gay" community. The problem is, they go out of their way to deny equality to the LBT part of the community, which is not how MLK conducted his business. Some write blogs from Argentina, some run national organizations and others write on Bilerico. They all think their rights have to come first and us "uppity trannies" need to shut up. They think that same-sex marriage is the only important issue out there. When you have people like that in the LGBT community, no one could ever be an MLK for any of us.

Robin Gorsline | June 24, 2009 7:55 AM

Less pontificating, more organizing (that's the heavy lifting of social change).

beachcomberT | June 24, 2009 9:34 AM

The Times article was silly, but it got me thinking about a related question -- who might someday be a stong LGBT candidate for president? Right now, we have so few gay people in Congress and state legislatures, it's hard to see a potential contender. Barney Frank seems more likely to age into the House Speakership than run for president. Some gifted leaders with national stature, like Rev. Troy Perry or Bishop Gene Robinson, apparently have no interest in political careers. I'd love to see Larry Kramer run, but he would be only a Nader-type footnote. Possibly in 5 or 10 years someone will follow the Ronald Reagan example and we'll have a show-business celebrity get into politics. Ellen? Rachel Maddow? I could vote for them.

Mitchell Halberstadt | June 24, 2009 10:13 AM

Harvey Milk was indeed our MLK, right down to being a martyr, and it's surprising that whoever wrote that piece for the NY Times didn't realize this before they wrote the first word of their article.

We live in very different times; community and identity are much more fragmented than in MLK's time and -- more to the point -- it's difficult to imagine a common language in which to define them (or our common humanity).

This has both good and bad aspects. A community that celebrates its diversity in terms of "pride" isn't well-positioned to contend with situations that call for humility. In such a situation the operating principle becomes "the nail that sticks up must be hammered down."

This is especially problematic to the extent that the "G" part of the community is interested in liberating male sexuality (as homosexuality). In demanding respect, gay males represent a sexual culture from whose vantage point the "LBT" community can appear to be infested with breeders and feminists who hold a very different view of male sexuality and, in particular, its accountability in demanding rights (or are they privileges?).

If any "G" has the balls to claim that his "native tongue" is a common language, he quickly learns that the price of admission to an "inclusive LGBT community" is to keep his mouth shut -- except when there's a dick inside it, at which point an L, B or T obviously must be doing the speaking for him. That's just the way it is these days. So much for the "G" in LGBT (and for liberation on its own terms).

But I'll spare you from being further subjected to the spectacle of a mere gay man lamenting "my time has passed."

The problem, after all, is that humanity itself has reached a point where the very ambition to speak a common language involves a sort of Messianic arrogance. With every outcropping of the eloquence of an MLK, there's a voice in the background muttering, "I'll cut his nuts off."

Meanwhile, I'd be happy, as a would-be-prophetic gay man, to decline the crown of an MLK. I'd be happy to walk in the footsteps of an Allen Ginsberg or a Harvey Milk, or to be a Larry Kramer who's learned to be fun rather than cranky. White gay male? If I can't get the imprimatur of the LGBTs, maybe it's because I feel I have less in common with a lesbian transsexual woman of color than I do with the people I've just mentioned -- or, for that matter, with a Woody Allen or a Philip Roth. Come to think of it, maybe I can still win this game as a New York Jew.

For starters, perhaps I should try to get this published in the New York Times, before they (or I) go out of business...

And a big reason we'll never have one leader is precisely because too many have fits because their personal chosen label, which is different from our cultural and class label, isn't being uttered enough.

I'm gay. Just gay. If I wanted to be a pain for my community I'd call myself a gender variant trans lesbian, which is the new fancy way of saying butch lesbian. I find it unnecessary. I'm gay because that's my community. If you want to separate yourselves from that cultural identity, you go right ahead. Lesbian separatism didn't worked for us. I don't know why we didn't learn from that and instead added MORE separatism to the mix.

It's not like bi and trans people suddenly appeared and we had to come up with new labels. We were all called gay before.

Do people consistently call Obama biracial? No, the call him black. He calls himself black. And if you actually ask black people about the range skin tones, they'll tell you they have infighting about that where lighter skinned blacks have slightly more privilege. And that there are actually black people who aren't of African descent.

I'll be damned if I can think of multiple terms for feminists... even gay feminists still call themselves feminists. huh.

Second and third wave feminism and actually there is a a lot of infighting there too. Rebecca Walker catches hell from the second wave people from time to time, of course she gives at least as good as she gets and usually better.
Point being that this is happening among feminists also.
Also about the whole thing with bi people once being called gay and not having their own identity within the movement. When the very first "homosexualist" organization was chartered in in 1924 Chicago two of the three original officers decided to exclude bisexual interests from the group and in fact forced the other of the three officers to stay in the closet about being bi which all cam out when they were arrested.
Just pointing out an historical detail about the LGBT movement.
I can appreciate that you feel comfortable using the term gay as a general identifier, can you appreciate that others of us do not feel that comfort?