Alex Blaze

Gay is not the new Black: Why replicating King's strategies won't work for the contemporary queer

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 21, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Christian beliefs, civil rights movement, goals, LGBT, Martin Luther King Jr., stride toward freedom

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.

king-rustin.jpgWhy 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

Recent Entries Filed under Gay Icons and History:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Very interesting and some good points. King was guided by some clear ideas and to a great extent I don't see that clarity in the queer movement.
We could, of course, haggle the price and value of assimilation. That discussion would last for days and become heated.
Personally I mentally differentiate the ideas of queer activism from the older ideas which valued types of assimilation more and which seem championed by HRC and its various ideological subsidiaries.
When we discuss LGBTQ assimilation we have to discuss issues of it being a two way street. To what extent do people push to be assimilated into and ideal and to what extent to people push to assimilate those things into themselves. I would love to read your thoughts about it (maybe a future article, hint hint)
Is it a case of becoming straight acting enough to be accepted or is it a case of not being killed or socially punished for not being straight acting?
I see a strong movement toward not becoming straight acting or the next best thing to straight or any of those other HRCish ideas. I see a lot of people trying to move toward us being ourselves without extreme modification of self to fit in.

And so 2 black gays wearing a t-shirt tells us ...what, exactly?

No one black person can encapsulate what "black" is (as Alex has noted in both of his posts). No one gay black person can encapsulate what a gay black person is or how all gay black people think.

I'll repeat what I always say to people who say 'where's the gay MLK'. We don't need an MLK, really, the figurehead of the movement comes later. What we need is a queer rights A. Phillip Randolph, or a queer rights organization using Bayard Rustin (pictured, somewhat ironically because of his omission from the tactical discussion, above). Now, Rustin was gay, but he focused on african american civil rights when he was younger and said that he was moving on to gay ones. A massively influental black queer pacifist Marxist who was essentially blacklisted for years by King makes it into the picture, but not into the discussion.

On the Christianity thing, I disagree. Yes, King explicitly invoked Christianity, but the tactics he used were not traditional Christian ones, they were traditional leftist labour organizing ones. This is a leftist designed strike of black people hidden beneath a cloak of Christianity to give it respectability. Why is King the figurehead and not Rustin (who trained King in nonviolent tactics and who was a key player in the Civil Rights Movement) or Randolph? Because King, as a married, straight, not overtly a powerful member of the Socialist Party, not a union boss, preacher was easier to sell to white people, who already tended to think Christians were better. Rustin, unmarried, publically shacked up with another man, black quaker, is too queer, too leftist (former member of the communist party), too intensely connected with anti-war movements. Randolph, founder of the first nationally recognized black union (organized during the depression against one of the biggest companies in the nation), long term socialist, publisher of a radical socialist newspaper, was too damned scary to moderate whites. But these were the sort of people who were the backbone of this movement, and those are the sort of people we really need, people with experience organizing against powerful corporations and against the government.

Also, "integration, dignity, and improving the living conditions" is the goal of the vast majority of queer people, just not the rich white spineless ones who run the HRC.

I, too, wondered what is the big secret about pointing out that the man in the right of the photo is Bayard Rustin, one of the co-ordinators of the 1963 March.

(In fact, it is often remarked that Rustin did all the real organizing grunt work, and A. Phillip Randolph was largely a figurehead who interfaced with the other CRM elites. Roy WIlkins, head of NAACP at the time, in particular refused to work directly with Rustin, specifically because Rustin was gay.)

There is a FOURTH and probably most important point which you failed to realize and which, more likely than not, was far more responsible for Martin Luther King being an acceptable spokesperson for the Black Community. THAT POINT is that there was a more militant and radical group to counter King's non-violent approach.

Ultimately though, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a legislation which symbolically represents the crowning achievement of the Black Civil Rights Movement, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the product of ONE MAN, One White Man who aspired to being remembered as "The Southerner Who
Rammed Through The Biggest Civil Rights Legislation in History". That man, of course, was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Without Lyndon Johnson that most certainly would not have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 no matter what King did nor how long he lived.

Not at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is the specific subject matter of "Stride Toward Freedom"

In that context, King himself was viewed as a radical who was upsetting some of the conservatives in the black community AND King was treading on NAACP turf.

The specific developments that you refer to (i.e. the Black Muslims/Malcolm X and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or the SNCC) were yet to take the national stage.

Malcolm X died in 65, so pretty much all of his work was done before this, fyi. SNCC was also a key player in this movement. You have your time frames screwed up. SNCC was particularly involved in high violence situations, such as confronting the Klan and were referred to as 'the shock troops of the revolution'.

Uh, no, your timeline is 100% wrong.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December of 1955 and lasted a year.

The book that Alex is citing was written in 1958. The Black Muslims did not have national prominence at that point in time (indeed, they were only known in a few cities in the East and in the Midwest) and the SNCC wasn't founded until 1960.

Both the actual events described in Stride Toward Freedom and the book itself predate the influence of the Black Muslims and the SNCC.

Kathy Padilla | September 21, 2010 1:20 PM

"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'd suggest that for most trans folk - improving living conditions is a very great part of what the movement is about. For those fighting for HIV services, women seeking equal pay and lgbt seniors as well. But, that just illustrates the point of how diverse we all are - and who gets to decide what's important.

A good series thus far, Alex.

I haven't read MLK in some time but now I will cram over the next 2 or 3 days just to keep up.

One critical issue that is inclusive of some of the difference in the black community is geography.

For example, Northern blacks had a considerable measure of self-respect that many Southern blacks didn't have (in spite of the racism of the north).

For example, it was the initial JIm Crow experiences of soldiers from the North during the 2nd World War that sparked the outrage in black newspapers that eventually culminated in the desegregation of the Armed Forces.
That was one of the real dividing lines in the national black community, as King would come to discover himself

"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."

I have to disagree somewhat that these three goals necessarily have to employ different tactics or strategies. Our primary problem is we have been "branded" as wrong or defective. At a young age impressionable children are taught this. Ending that branding by religion, coupled with an effort to "re-brand" would erase the idea that we are lesser human beings or wrong or defective. It would accomplish all or a large part of all three goals.

Much of this re-branding is gradually taking place with many contributions to the cultural conversation, but we have never done that as a cohesive strategy. We have never done that as a community. We must.

We have to marginalize the source: fanatical religious people by outnumbering them with people who understand we're not wrong or defective and who are prepared to stand with us for our full equality. That majority will eventually extinguish those that wish to cling to their ancient religious teachings/belief.

Each year America gets "less religious" and homosexuality becomes "less important." By default that is progress. But, real progress would require that we don't simply wait - WE re-brand ourselves. Proactive, not reactive.

Educate, enlighten and enroll, accomplishes all three goals (to varying degrees) but doesn't divide us - in fact, it unites us.

As I pointed out yesterday, the significance of the military experiences of black soldiers during WW-II (and WW-I to a lesser extent) can hardly be overplayed.

Not only did black soldiers experience racism from white American soldiers, as you point out Chitown Kev, they were treated like demi-gods by the Europeans, especially the French, for whose rescue from German attack and occupation that so bravely fought for. And they experienced what it was like to be regarded as formidable opponents, according to David Leverling Lewis, when the Germans came to refer to one of the black regimen as "the dreaded blood-thirsty black men".

So, the black military experience was a double-edged sword in the psyche of American blacks, indeed.

OooOOooh I wish there were "like" options for comments @TBP. Because Chitown Kev & A.J. would get them here.


I doubt if he was listening to this version...I would love to track it down but cool is this image?

I have more thoughts about your post and the comments here but I just had to add that

Dear, me, most of my comment was cut off here but I was writing that MLK began his book with such a cool opening...driving from Atlanta to Montgomery listening to Donzetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Malcolm joined nation of Islam in '52 and left it in '63 and Elijah Muhammed ran it from '32. Both big names. You are right the SNCC wasn't founded until '60, but Rustin, Malcolm X, Randoplh and many others were already around and very politically active at the time. It should be noted that the picture, the letter from the birmingham jail, and many things discussed in the post were after the founding of SNCC as well.

The mission of the Messanger, the socialist paper that Randolph began publishing in 1917:

"Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times, and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary Negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to. Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is."

Here's some great anti-war quotes:

[On black refusal to go to war on behalf of the US during WW1] "the Negro may be choosing between being burnt by Tennessee, Georgia or Texas mobs or being shot by Germans in Belgium. We don't know about this pro-Germanism among Negroes. It may be only their anti-Americanism -meaning anti-lynching." and "In keeping with the ultra-patriotism of the oldline type of Negro leaders the NAACP failed to grasp its opportunity. It might have informed the Administration representatives that the discontent among Negroes was not produced by propaganda, nor can it be removed by propaganda. The causes are deep and dark - though obvious to all who care to use their mental eyes. Peonage, disfranchisement, Jim-Crowism, segregation, rank civil discrimination, injustice of legislatures, courts and administrators - these are the propaganda of discontent among Negroes. The only legitimate connection between this unrest and Germanism is the extensive government advertisement that we are fighting "to make the world safe for democracy", to carry democracy to Germany; that we are conscripting the Negro into the military and industrial establishments to achieve this end for white democracy four thousand miles away, while the Negro at home, through bearing the burden in every way, is denied economic, political, educational and civil democracy. "

Randolph and his co-publisher Chandler Owen were tried for sedition in 1918 "Don't you know," he [the judge] said, "that you are opposing your own government and that you are subject to imprisonment for treason?" We told him we believed in the principle of human justice and that our right to express our conscience was above the law."

(The Messenger ended in '27 when the Pullman company's attacks on Randolph during his work to uniionize the porters drove him into dept). So yeah, radical black movements were nothing new in '55. Also, Randolph got concessions from Rosevelt in '41 by threatening a March on Washington, so the seeds for that were already sewn before '55.