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.