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?