Editor’s Note: U.S. law has changed such that same-sex marriage is now legal, so some of the post does not reflect reality circa 2016. Rather than edit it, I’m leaving it unchanged and true to the spirit in which it was written.
I read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s one of the most powerful pieces of ethical writing throughout the history of humanity. Every year, I learn something different from it; every year, there is a piece of it that resounds within me in a new way. But this year was different – this year I was prompted to create something from it.
What follows is an essay modeled from the “Letter” that references gay rights in the United States. If you are familiar with Dr. King’s letter, you will see the same themes running throughout. You’ll also see a very similar structure and prose.
This is one of the best pieces of writing that I have ever produced. It’s long – over 3,000 words – but feel free to print it since this blog is print-friendly.
A Letter From Lincoln (In Memoriam of Dr. King)
While reading a “A Letter From Birmingham Jail” and thinking about the momentous inaugaration of Barack Obama, I began thinking the state of affairs regarding the civil rights of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning (GLBTQ) community within the United States. It seems as good of a time as any to extend the ideas of the “Letter” and the call for Change that has happened among the American people to the plight of GLBTQ community.
I think I should indicate why I am concerned here in Lincoln about a community that I only belong to by association with friends, families, and neighbors. I have studied ethics and taught philosophy to students for most of my adult life, and I also have had the honor of serving my country as an Army officer when it called for me to perform overseas. I have served in two capacities, then: as a preserver of the principles of human freedom and well-being through academia and as a guardian of human freedom and well-being through the military. I have been on the frontlines of our Nation’s cultural and military battlefields.
But more basically, I am writing about this issue because the laws that prevent our GLBTQ brothers and sisters from taking part in our Nation as first-class citizens are unjust. Just as the prophets of the past left their villages to carry the truth of human spirit far beyond their homelands, and just as Gandhi extended the truths of freedom from Indians to all humans and, furthermore, to animals, and just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr extended his message to people of all colors and creeds, so I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom to those brothers and sisters who are still denied their constitutional and moral rights.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all people, despite nationality, race, sex, sexual orientation, or economic status. We cannot on the one hand promote freedom based on the arbitrary features of race and sex while at the same time deny those with alternative sexual orientations their equally-valid freedoms. On this, Dr. King prompted us to remember:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The passage of forty-five years has not changed these truths; what has changed is our sympathy to the plight of others.
The recent acceptance of Proposition 8 in California, as well as the many laws in Arkansas and other states that serve to deny our brothers and sisters their right to participate as equals in the freedoms of democracy, are soon passing from a hot issue to the status quo. How can we be so indifferent to the rejection of our neighbors and sit idly by while they pay taxes to support a government that denies them their rights and goes so far as to not allow them to openly defend the freedoms they so long for?
It is true that there was much media coverage of the many rallies against these unjust propositions, and many people became irritated at the state of affairs and disruption that these rallies caused. But merely looking at the rallies and civil-political disruption without looking at the causes of disruption is hollow. It is like complaining about the unsightly band-aid instead of the intentional acts that caused the bleeding.
The GLTBQ community has followed the natural steps of any social movement. They have bided their time, pursued legal remedies, and tried to rally their peers and loved ones to help them. There can be no denying the fact that there is a rampant stream of homophobia that grips this nation, despite all of the face-saving appearances to the contrary. Most States within the Union do not allow our brothers and sisters to have civil unions, let alone be married. Without this bundle of rights, they cannot share insurance, visit ill partners, adopt children, protect their property, or a slew of other of the many things that those of us with the sanctioned sexuality take for granted. These facts are not the result of some “pro-gay” bias; they are the cold, hard facts of our society.
Since our elected officials have done so poorly, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have begun seeking aid from the institution that now drives social change in America: the entertainment industry. Actors, musicians, writers, talk-show hosts, and many others now serve in the place that open, nonviolent action did in the 60s; they create the environment that fosters the “tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” And their doing so has elicited the criticisms of many types of people, even though it is this tension that is necessary for growth and that environment is now the only effective arena to force the tension. The currents of change now reside on our televisions, iPods, and computer screens rather than the streets of Birmingham, Alabama.
You may ask: “Shouldn’t you give President-elect Obama a chance to act before you call upon your neighbors to act?” I think President-elect Obama has shown us enough already to indicate that he will be slow to act, even if he does. His choice of Pastor Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation should warn us that his platform of “Change” means “Change – when politically feasible.” His inheritance of the Iraq war, the economic crisis, and the environmental crisis means that his hands will be full on issues that deal with “everybody”; furthermore, riding to the Office on the backbone of change may be his undoing. Politicians will resist his efforts to change the status quo more fervently since they know his intentions, and those who elected him because he pledged change will be frustrated at the real and necessary compromises that he’ll have to endure; he will be unable to fulfill his promise and will lose political capital from both supporters and opponents alike. What political capital he has left will be spent on the Big Issues; that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are denied open participation in our society sadly will not be a big enough issue.
One of the most peculiar things about the denial of rights to our GLBTQ community is how little it will affect the majority of people. The majority will continue to have the same rights and privileges as we always have had; we are not giving away anything. And, even if we did have to give something up, we would have no right to withhold it from our brothers and sisters, anyway. Just as the son of the slave-owner had no right to the labor of his father’s slave, we have no right to withhold the rights and privileges of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters from them.
The same call to “Wait!” that stung the ears of African Americans in the past now resounds in the souls of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters. While the rest of the civilized world has moved past denying their GLBTQ citizens their rights, America still creeps along at “horse and buggy pace” towards allowing men to marry other men and women to marry other women. What’s essentially a procedural action – filing for a marriage license – for most of America becomes an inquisition and rejection of the humanity of GLBTQ men and women on a daily basis.
Once again, perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the sting of discrimination to say, “Wait.” But when you see people like you hung from fences in Wyoming or beaten in bars throughout the States; when you have seen homophobic police officers haul your friends off to jail for being intimate with their partners in public while they slap heteros on the wrists for the same “crime”; when you cannot visit your dying partner because you do not have the legal status of family; when you cannot leave the property that your partner has helped you acquire to that partner; when you have to have an additional job just because your insurance policy does not extend to your partner; or when you yearn to adopt one of the many sad-eyed children in adoption homes but are denied because you love someone with the same pair of sexual organs that you have; when people continually refer to your partner as a “friend” and gently warn their children to stay away from you; when you see people showing signs of affection for their loved ones in public yet you doing so would jeopardize your safety or social standing; when you are humiliated day in and day out by pejoratives like “That’s gay!” or “limp-wristed” or “butch”; when people spend an inordinate amount of time relating you solely to what you do in the privacy of your bedroom; when you are harried day and night by the constant reminder that you are not normal and something is wrong with you; when you have structured your life around remaining in the closet, scared and alone — then you will understand why it is difficult to wait. Just as the cup of endurance ran over with African Americans in the 60s, our queer brothers and sisters are tired of drinking from the draught of despair.
Many people are not concerned because the definition of marriage in our legal framework accords with their understanding of marriage. Furthermore, they cite the Bible and Christian tradition as the source that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Were we to live in a theocracy, perhaps there would be a leg to stand on, but the same right that secures their ability to believe in their frameworks of divinity is the same right that precludes others from being bound to the norms of that framework. Their arguments against “gay marriage” are religious and cultural; my argument here is strictly civil. Our civil constitution simply cannot allow the arbitrary distinction of sexual orientation to determine who gets the fruits and burdens of citizenships and who does not. The laws precluding our GLBTQ neighbors from the same rights as straights are simply unjust.
A quick review of just and unjust laws is in order. A just (civil) law is one that accords with our morality and an unjust law is one that clashes with what we know to be morally correct; or, to quote Dr. King specifically: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Can we not see that segregating people based upon sexual orientation “distorts the soul and damages the personality” just as much as segregation based upon race?
There are times, however, when segregation is just; for instance, we have good reasons to segregate male and female bathrooms, given that there are issues of privacy and safety that warrant the separation of the sexes. Yet denying people the right to the full spectrum of liberty because they have an alternative sexual orientation does not fall within the scope of reasonableness. The extensive research shows that gays and lesbians are no more likely to treat other people better or worse than heterosexual people; the only reason we would condemn the moral character of gays and lesbians, generally, is if we had some pre-conceived notion that homosexual activity is immoral.
Such arguments have been made, but none of them are convincing. It’s a sociological fact that nearly all of such arguments come from people within the Abrahamic tradition (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and almost all depend on the references in the tradition that same-sex acts are an abomination or a sin. I should also note that there are arguments disguised under the notion of natural law – that same-sex acts go against the law of nature – yet those depend on “laws of nature” given by the Christian God. The naturalist “natural law” arguments usually fail precisely because we have ample evidence of same-sex behavior in non-human animals. Barring religious arguments, there are no enlightened moral arguments that conclude that same-sex activity, among consenting adults, is morally impermissible, and that the only features that would make particular same-sex acts morally impermissible are ones that would make any sex acts morally impermissible (i.e. cheating on one’s partner, rape, and sex with children).
Given that the majority of this country is Christian, though, isn’t it only right that the laws of the Union reflect their values? This is a complex issue, long enough to deserve its own series of letters. But, briefly, no – there is no reason the cultural values of the majority should be used to determine the political rights of some of the members just because they are cultural values. If the values were independently defensible, then that would be another matter, but that has already been addressed above. The religious beliefs of the majority on this matter do not justify the laws because the only reason someone would consent to those laws is if they already had that cultural belief. Clearly, our GLBTQ brothers and sisters do not believe that their activities are morally impermissible. The lesson from Rawls is that we cannot use the private reasons of one’s particular religious beliefs as public reasons to deny people a set of rights when those reasons cannot meet a certain bar of acceptability. Since the laws that discriminate against our GLBTQ neighbors are morally indefensible and damages their souls and personalities, they are unjust.
As in every social movement in the past, it is the silent majority that is the largest obstacle in the way of social progress on this front. Once again, it is the lukewarm acceptance of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters that is more bewildering than outright rejection. Each of us by now knows someone who has an alternative sexual orientation; they are not profoundly “other.” They are our (literal) brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, teammates and coworkers. Each of us knows of the humiliation and isolation that they feel.
Yet we return to our “normal” lives as if their plight is the theme of a television show or song: when we’re not listening or watching, they’re not playing. We remain silent when bigots tell jokes at their expense or when people gape at them holding hands. Were they starving, I’d hope our hearts would not be so cold – but the starvation they’re feeling is not from the nutrients of food but the nutrients of their society. And while the silent majority remains quiet, the extreme religious right yells at the top of their collective, and powerful, lungs.
Dr. King pondered in 1963 if “organized religion [was] too extricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world.” Over two score and five years later, we may again ask the question and get clearer answers, although we may have to qualify it a bit more. There are some organized religions that are working to effect positive change in the world in some areas, and, though they’re low on quantity and high on quality, their efforts are thwarted by the conservative wing of the Church that’s doing more than stalling progress – it’s reversing what progress has been made. Russell’s observation that organized religion has opposed every effort of social progress is thus not entirely accurate; the more murky truth in the 21st Century is that the conservative Church is the culprit, with the smaller, less engaged churches playing the collective role of the silent majority. Unfortunately, our politicians listen to those who yell the loudest with the most voices, and the members of the conservative churches are chock-full of people who do yell frequently and loudly to their representatives. This is again why the GLTBQ community has turned to mass media, the new religion in America. The old religion has no interest in them and is actively opposing them.
Even more frustrating, though, is the stance of the African American community on gay rights. The same community that would seem to be the natural ally of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters is one of its staunchest opponents – this was proven in the voting analysis of Proposition 8. The same community that is now celebrating the election of the first black President – who, coincidentally, is mixed-race, having an African father and a white American mother – is the same community that is actively supporting the discrimination of the new “dirty” communities: the Latinos and GLBTQ community. How quickly the oppressed join the oppressors!
Never in my life have I been more ashamed of my African-American heritage than I have been to sit by and watch my brothers and sisters to so actively oppress others rather than lift them up. The same arguments that were used against our mothers and fathers – it really hasn’t been that long – are the same ones now being used against our new brothers and sisters. It’s bad enough that we allow it to happen, but even worse that our rhetoric and actions are part of the engine of the new oppression. We should know better, and I know that Dr. King would be ashamed that we continually snatch his dream from others.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Undoubtedly, if you are currently reading these words, you see the need for change. The world is large and the needs are many, I know; but within each of us lies the power to change the world. This letter is a small part of my being the change I want to see; I hope you will join me. Send this letter to anyone and everyone you know; talk about the ideas; refuse to be the silent majority and become part of the small minority that fights injustice when and where they see it. Dr. King’s dream was not just his – it’s ours. The only thing that keeps it being a dream and not reality is the part each of us play.
What’s your part in the slow but steady march toward human freedom?
Being Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning is a choice!
Nationality, race, sex, and economic status are not a choice!
Great essay, thank you. I will be forwarding this to my friends.
Thank you Charlie. I’ve been listening to the media ask “Is MLK’s dream fulfilled tomorrow?” Many say Yes, but I heard MLK III disagree and say he didn’t believe his father’s dream will be fulfilled tomorrow when Obama is sworn into office as our 44th AND FIRST African-American president.
I’ve been saying out loud for a long time to my GLBTQ community that we stand for the same principle MLK gave his life for. I know there are many people in the African-American community who say it offends them when they hear a member of the GLBTQ community express this. Like we are taking something away from their fight. I just don’t understand.
I don’t want to fight. Instead I want to stand. Stand for Love. Stand for Peace. Stand for Hope.
I personally embrace my homosexuality as a gift, just as the Pasadena minister mentioned on an Oprah program about a week ago. I cherish it as “my part” and will continue to look to MLK and now Mr. Obama for examples of living my part out in an empowering way for myself and for us.
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This is good stuff, Charlie. But those of us that fall in one of those lettered categories (glbtq) are ready for more action and less essays. It feels like this stone we’ve been rolling uphill and now it’s going backwards again.
M.L. King would not be with you on this one, for several reasons: 1) God is not with you; numerous places in the Bible mention that homosexuality is wrong -don’t water it down 2) Homosexuals have some of the worst records on drug use, have poor health, and the lowest life expectancy of almost any group 3) to top it off, studies show homosexuals are not even happy. Nevertheless, life is not easy and family histories are often miserable precursors to many of our poor choices. But as tempting as it is to use a successful Christian as a supporter, I don’t think it works here.
Sonia Simone | Remarkable Communication says
Good on you for this, Charlie. It’s no easier a struggle, no less noble a struggle, and ignorance is all around us. Thank you for standing up.
Just as ignorance and fear (slowly, so painfully slowly) toppled with the civil rights movement, so they will with this chapter.
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Jamie Dunford says
Without casting dispersions on Steve who commented before me, I have a few problems with the arguments he made.
1) The bible mentions a number of different things as acceptable that we no longer follow (women’s rights come to mind). As a Christian I believe God wants us to use the brains He gave us, and recognize what still works and what no longer works.
2) and 3) If your rights were consistently withheld, I suspect you would not be the happiest person on earth either. And unfortunately, a lot of people who are unhappy turn to drug or alcohol abuse, which in turn affects their health and life expectancy (assuming the above statistic is even true). I would hazard a bet that the poor are generally less happy than their economically endowed counterparts, but I would never expect to hear the argument that the poor don’t deserve rights because they are unhappy.
I don’t want to turn this into a soapbox, and like I said I don’t know Steve and am not looking to attack anyone’s beliefs, but this was an excellent essay and I think the faulty logic in Steve’s comment needs to be pointed out. I think the points brought up take away from what Charlie was trying to say.
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I’m not nearly as nice as Jamie as it regards people like Steve. But perhaps that’s because I don’t take kindly to propagation of lies.
1. You clearly don’t know your Bible. I do. Greek and Hebrew. Until you actually learn what the text actually says (as opposed to what you’ve been told it says), please stop making asinine assertions in public.
2. Statical proof please? Sources? I know of no studies or other actual data that provides proof of your assertion. Particularly the drug assertion. And I know the life expectancy assertion is flat out wrong. Poverty kills far more often and readily than being gay.
3. Unhappiness. Well, you have a small point there. But let’s see … spat upon, thrown out by your parents, kicked, beaten, called names, denied employment, denied basic legal rights … what’s there to be happy about? There is also a mountain of study evidence to suggest that once same-sex folks have equal rights their base happiness goes up markedly. Call me silly, but I think there *might* be a correlation.
And so that I’m not just pointing out Steve for the malicious individual he is, the person who said that being gay is a choice makes me want to spit fire in her/his general direction – preferably when she/he is pumping gas.
Why on earth would ANYONE choose to be shat upon the way our society does to gays? Why oh why?
Please, common sense, compassion, education. Three tenants that appear to be in shorter and shorter supply.
Charlie, thank you for writing this. I’m one of “them” and I always smile when one of “you” stands with us.
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Lisa Firke says
What Sonia said, Charlie. Exactly what Sonia, so perfectly, said.
@fraggin_target: Clearly, you’re not trolling, so I’ll pause and answer this comment.
You remember that day – somewhere around the fifth grade for me – where someone presented you the option of being attracted to boys or girls? Oh, the dilemma! Strong but stinky boys or soft but smart and good-smelling girls. What to do, what to do!
Er…wait, that didn’t happen. Just as I didn’t choose to like chocolate, the color blue, or a myriad of other things that we really never chose.
Furthermore, it’s only patriarchal societies where there is an issue with “homosexuality.” It turns out the sexual orientation is on a spectrum, and it’s a particular ideology (I wonder which one?) that has idealized sexual orientation into the categories we’re discussing.
Lastly, I find it odd that you including “economic status” as something we don’t choose, when the American dream is built on us choosing a different economic future than the one we’ve been dealt. I can make myself poor far easier than I can make myself be sexually attracted to another male.
@Dylan: Thanks! I’m glad you’re sharing it.
@Mynde: Your sexuality is part of what makes you the beautiful woman that you are. You need not look anywhere else – within you lies all the strength you need. You’ll see.
I’ve never understood the black community on this one except by understanding it through the lens of religion. That’s when I’m being charitable – and I am most of the time. Otherwise it’s just bigoted homophobia.
@Amanda: I appreciate what you’re saying, but as we saw today with the Inauguration, words have power. Writing them and speaking them is powerful. But action is required, as well.
@Steve: I’ll defer to Jamie on this one, since he said pretty much what I was going to say. I do appreciate you leaving a reasoned dissent, though I disagree with your conclusion or premises.
@Sonia: Thanks. I think it’s harder a harder struggle in some ways. You can’t hide your race or gender, and no one expects that you should. There’s absolutely nothing (behaviorally) you can do about it.
But you can hide your sexuality, and there are many people that think you should – presuming it’s not the right one. So we see so many unhappy people living lives that don’t fit them just because they can. And they replace the hurt that society would given them with the hurt they give themselves.
It is only a matter of time before this is no longer an issue. But there’s still a lot of struggle between now and that time.
@Jamie: Thanks so much for addressing this for me. You nailed it.
I actually don’t think his points took away – I think they proved the point. Would Dr. King seriously want people to live in a world in which they hate themselves because we refuse to recognize their humanity? If so – then I’d have to accuse him of bad faith; he’d be on the wrong side of history. Who knows? But I have hope that he’d live up to his own words.
@Christy: Thanks for coming here to comment and being here with us. And the only reason I drew out the me/you distinction was to get the “he only cares because he’s gay” thing out of the way quickly.
We both love. We both hurt. We both want to uplift our fellow beings. We’re far more “we” than we are “me and you” in everything that matters.
p.s. I know you didn’t intend to draw that line, but I’m glad you did, since I didn’t say that our common humanity unites us more than our different sexuality divides us in the essay. I guess I can change that.
@Lisa: Thanks! I always appreciate compliments, but especially from talented writers. Yes, I mean the both of you.
Thanks, Charlie. It makes me happy and proud to know that you’re standing up for me and mine. I appreciate your friendship and your support.
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You’re right, I wasn’t trying to highlight an “us vs them” dynamic, but the truth is that we’ve reached the point in this struggle that that’s where we are.
I have a wonderful mentor who is a retired Episcopal bishop. He was in the room with MLK and others, planning next steps in the early 60s. He has told me that he knew the Civil Rights Movement would create tangible change when it reached the point that even “white guys” like him were included in the “them” category by those opposed to the Movement.
As soon as those who were not Black, who were not among the oppressed were lumped together with those who were, it meant that things had shifted. That the lines that had been so clear, were now blurred.
I think that’s what was – unconsciously – in my mind when I wrote the last bit. I see this line blurring whenever someone like you writes something like this. This gives me hope. Real, tangible hope.
It’s a good thing.
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