Yesterday I posted on Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King's account of the Montgomery bus boycott, one of the most successful direct actions in American history.
Why was it successful? I'll get more into that tomorrow, when I'll relate more about what King saw as the goal of boycott (it wasn't just to integrate the buses in Montgomery).
Reading it as a gay blogger in the year 2010, I can't help but think about what this says about us. There are plenty of people who quote King, without context. Which is interesting, because King chastises himself at one point, while discussing his intellectual background in nonviolence, because he "fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything [Reinhold Niebuhr] wrote." Perhaps we shouldn't fall into the trap of accepting uncritically everything King said, especially if we don't understand the context it was written in?
His "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and "I Have a Dream" speech are great works, but his books are where the meat of his worldview were captured. It's more complicated than that one quotation about not judging people by the color of their skin that the Tea Partiers love to take out of context (if conservatives read Stride Toward Freedom expecting color-blindness... oh boy oh boy).
And we queers can't fall into that trap either. His tactics were successful, but they required a lot of work and were made for his specific context. Three reasons why there won't be a gay Martin Luther King and the LGBT movement will look entirely different from the Civil Rights Movement, after the jump.
- I can't beat around the bush here, and King certainly doesn't - his understanding of the world was based in Christianity, his tactics were "Christianity in action," and he saw the movement as an extension of church action.
The mass meetings that were held once or more per week to keep Montgomery's 50,000-person African American community informed were opened with prayer. They sang Christian songs. They were held in churches, moving from church to church to keep it fair and spread throughout the Christian denominations (King laments that the Catholic Church was the only one that didn't participate in the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization formed to organize the bus boycott).
It wasn't just the mass meetings; Sunday morning was often used to get information out, with pastors discussing strategy Saturday night. The churches offered themselves up as meeting points for some of the carpools (over forty departure points in all in the system constructed to make up for the loss of buses). King himself was employed as a pastor and talked about how he became a "Sunday sermon minister" because of the work he took on because of the boycott - the church itself was partly funding the action.
This isn't to say that the church was the Facebook of yesteryear. Christian theology was woven throughout the action. King practiced nonviolence and made it the guiding philosophy of the boycott - that nonviolence he traced back to Jesus. He cited Jesus' love, his commandment to turn the other cheek, and his commandment to forgive people who harm you "seventy times seven." You may know that he studied Gandhi's approach to nonviolence, but here's how he summarizes his understanding of Gandhi: "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale."
And he told people participating in the boycott to remember Jesus' nonviolence. When his house was bombed and the community wanted to seek vengeance, he told people to remember God's admonishment to "pray for them that despitefully use you." When an organizer turned on the boycott and spread lies and his congregation booed him, he asked for anyone without sin to cast the first stone. And when the boycott was over and the buses were integrated, he and other pastors wrote up a tract on how to behave on the bus, which included telling people to pray if they were assaulted or harassed, not to retaliate. (I'll get more into his understanding of nonviolence tomorrow. The title: "Nonviolence: It's more than not hitting people.")
Most importantly, he repeatedly cites the "redemptive power of suffering," which, while a central part of Gandhi's understanding of the world, is fairly specific to Christianity in the West. And the main reason that the boycott took off way that it did is that it put suffering in the proper context - instead of the suffering being indignity, the suffering was physical and it was for dignity. It's the concept that put the "Christ" in "Christian."
The point is, the action was Christian from start to end. There's no getting around that. The queer community in 2010, by contrast, is much less religious and much more distrustful of religion. That's not necessarily a bad thing - non-violence and spiritual maturity aren't the property of religion. But it does mean that the tactics can't be repeated without understanding the differing contexts.
- The community King was organizing was an actual community. People lived near each other. They had similar customs. They interacted with each other. Even if they were divided along lines of class and denomination and education, as King describes, the lines of division didn't run as deep as those in the queer community in 2010.
We come from all over the country, from every religion, from every race, from every political stripe, from every sexual orientation, from every gender, from every nationality, from every class.... We don't even live near each other - gayborhoods are falling apart as more and more queers choose to live on the outside.
Queerness is a secondary identity, one that's not learned at a young age and definitely not nurtured until someone hits puberty (the rare exceptions notwithstanding). A person usually has a vague idea of who she is before she learns that she loves someone of the wrong sex or both sexes or has an understanding of what it means to have been born into the wrong body.
Because of that, we often have other loyalties to other communities that come first. And lots of us don't even interact with the larger queer population, ever, feeling no ties to the rest of the population. In fact, the use of the word "community" to describe us almost seems like a joke when the compared to other communities united by not just a common trait but a common history, culture, and geography.
This can't be overcome with bars or Twitter or gay rags. If it is to be overcome (which won't necessarily happen, by the way), it will because there will be meaning in identifying as queer.
The bottom line: If a group of LGBTQ community leaders organized a boycott Friday, could they get 99% (while humbly expecting only 60%) participation by Monday?
- The third reason is that the Civil Rights Movement had fundamentally different goals than the LGBT movement today has. Since I'm focusing on King here and there was no hive mind at the time behind the movement, King's goals for the Civil Rights Movement were integration, dignity, and improving the living conditions of the African American population in the US. The LGBT movement's are assimilation, respect, and autonomy. I have said lots over the last three and a half years here at Bilerico about what I think about those goals, but I'm saying this without judgement: different goals necessarily means we're going to utilize different strategies and tactics.
Integration, for King, meant living harmoniously together and having access to the same resources and opportunities, but it did not mean living unnoticed among white people and doing the same things. Assimilation has its pitfalls and its benefits, but so long as queerness is seen as a secondary identity, the goal will be less about living harmoniously with straight people and instead be about never having to leave those social networks we grow up in.
Dignity comes from the inside, respect comes from the outside. One of the reasons King describes the boycott as a success beyond simply integrating the bus system is because of the new level of "self-respect" black people in Montgomery found. He quotes a black janitor: "We got our heads up now, and we won't ever bow down again - no, sir - except before God!"
We, on the other hand, keep on seeking respect from the outside. We often worry about media representations of queer people not because of the political agenda they advance or don't advance and not because of the truth to them, but because of the level of respect they afford us. While I'm sure not every black person in King's time agreed with him about the importance of dignity over respect, of esteem coming from within instead of from others, his understanding as a leader sets him apart from the LGBT movement.
The last distinction I made in goals above was between quality of life and autonomy. They aren't the same things, even though basic autonomy is a necessary part of a good quality of life and a decent quality of life is necessary for actual autonomy. But considering how ENDA always gets thrown under the bus when a more attractive issue related to autonomy comes along, quality of life obviously isn't our top priority.
If we're working for assimilation, there will be less of a community to mobilize since our goal is to reduce the importance of this community. If our goal is respect from others, our tactics will be less about improving ourselves and more about education. If our goal is autonomy, the economic components of our agenda will be pushed to the sidelines.
That doesn't cover it all, but the next time someone quotes King without any context, ask if it really applies to the question at hand. It's what he, as a Ph.D, would have wanted.