By Jasmyne Cannick
The legacy and dream of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on today but for so many African-American same-gender loving people that dream has been deferred. However, it’s a new year and it’s time for Black gays to reclaim their dreams and celebrate King’s legacy.
When Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the 60s for the civil rights of African-Americans, he wasn’t marching for the civil rights of some, he marched for all Blacks. Side by side, straight Blacks marched with gay Blacks and it’s important that the contributions of gays to this movement do not continue to be downplayed and overlooked.
The gay rights movement has been compared to the 60s Civil Rights Movement repeatedly and questions surrounding King’s views on homosexuality are constantly being asked. We will never know for sure what King thought about homosexuality, but we do know that he apparently had no issue with working with gays because one of his closest personal and political advisors was an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was is best known for being one of driving forces behind the march on Washington in 1963.
The fact that King worked with and trusted an openly gay man during this critical moment in African-American history says a lot. King must not have found Rustin’s sexual orientation to be a hindrance to the movement and he didn’t allow the fact that Rustin was gay to supersede his being Black and having an active role in the movement.
At a time when there were very few voices for their own causes willing to stand up, Rustin and other Black gays and lesbians had to put aside gay rights issues for the cause of the greater movement – the Civil Rights Movement – and their contributions should not go forgotten or unnoticed.
When Blacks were drinking out of colored only water fountains and forced to use separate bathrooms from that of whites, the signs didn’t read “Straight Colored Only” and “Gay Colored Only.” No. They simply read “Colored Only.” Black gays and lesbians suffered the same mistreatment of Blacks in general and still had no voices of their own.
Flash forward forty years later to the vision of the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march in Atlanta to denounce marriage rights to gay couples. Attempting to further divide the Black community on the issue of homosexuality, Reverend Bernice King blatantly ignored the contributions of thousands of Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the Civil Rights Movement. If that wasn’t enough, Rev. King and mega church pastor Bishop Eddie Long purposely chose King’s gravesite to bring attention to the march and their hateful message. It’s unfortunate that there are those in the Black community that find bigotry acceptable towards gays and use misguided ideologies to convey their message.
However, today is a new day and King’s dream lives in all of us, straight or gay. King’s dream will no longer be deferred for Black gays. We will continue to fight discrimination, homophobia and bigotry in our own communities, whether it be the Black or gay community. The gay rights movement does share common ground with the Civil Rights Movement, discrimination. Blacks suffered discrimination at the hands of whites because of their skin color while gays continue to be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and identity.
Gone are the days of silence in the Black community around issues of sexuality, we played that game and it cost some of us our lives.
We will never know for certain what Dr. King thought about same gender loving people. The closest person to him, his wife, has already publicly stated that King would have supported gay rights if that were any indication on what his views might have been. But you know, I am not so much worried about what King would have thought about me being a Black lesbian as I am about the direction of our community on this issue. Our community has far more important issues that need our attention and resources than discrimination.
I dream that one day I will be able to legally marry my girlfriend and have our union protected by the 1,049 federal benefits and privileges afforded to heterosexual couples. I have a dream that one day gay youth will no longer be kicked out of their homes and displaced from their families simply because they are attracted to the same sex. I have a dream that our community will address the issues of HIV/AIDS head on and stop this disease from claiming another precious life. I have a dream that one day my same gender loving brothers and sisters will be able to free themselves from the chains of internalized homophobia and that our community can move past the issue of homosexuality to focus on the more pressing issues of today like the never-ending war, access to education, jobs, health care and social security.
I have a dream that will no longer be deferred thanks to the vision and effort of Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and the few same gender loving voices that dared to stand up back when they could find no one to stand up for their own rights. That’s what we should be celebrating on King’s holiday, not only the man, but the dream, and it does live on.