With Monday’s recognition of the birth, life, and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., coupled with the re-inaguration of President Barack Obama, there is a lot celebrate. And, this is an important time of reflection, as well. Does the election and subsequent re-election of our first (half) Black president signal the full realization of Dr. King’s dream of racial equality? In some ways, Obama’s presidency extends beyond King’s dream — a Black president??? But, in other ways, the country is a far cry from racial equality. Given the immediate sigh of relief that white Americans breathed upon President Obama’s election – the belief that we live in a “post-racial” society – it is fitting that we continue to ask whether we have achieved King’s dream, and, if not, in what ways should it be updated for the 21st century.
Dr. King’s work to improve race relations and the lives of people of color and working-class people is of tremendous significance in world history, and even today. So, it is unsurprising that his words and tactics, and the practices of the broader Civil Rights movement have been used to advance the rights of other marginalized communities. By all means, civil rights are not exclusive to Black people, nor are they denied solely on the basis of race. But, I worry that a focus on Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement to understand the world today is too limiting.
Martin Luther King And LGBT Rights?
Dr. King has been one of my heroes since an early age. I grew up wanting to become him for a new generation, fighting not just for racial equality, but also for an end to sexism, homophobia and transphobia, classism, and so forth. I am not alone in admiring Dr. King. But, increasingly, I see others want more from him than he offered.
One alarming trend is the annual blog posts and articles around MLK Day that debate whether Dr. King was an ally for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people during his life. And, oddly enough, some have asked whether he would advocate for LGBT rights, especially same-gender marriage, if he were still alive today. King’s support (or not) for LGBT rights has often been the topic of very ugly, public fights within his own family.
Two facts about Dr. King and LGBT issues are typically noted in these discussions:
- “King commented on homosexuality in an advice column he penned for Ebony magazine in 1958. A young man had written him for advice about homosexual feelings he was struggling with, and King replied that he considered such feelings to be problematic, ‘probably not innate,’ and in need of psychiatric care.” (From HuffingtonPost Gay Voices).
- And, one of King’s key advisors, and the co-organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, was Bayard Rustin — an out gay man, socialist, and pacifist. King and Rustin’s relationship was rough at times, and King was forced to distance himself when others threatened to out Rustin publicly.
Frankly, these questions are irrelevant and distracting. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 — a year before the 1969 Stonewall Riots that sparked the national gay rights movement. Given his work to eliminate racism and poverty, it is irrelevant whether he would support today’s fight for marriage equality or other rights for LGBT people. And, it is inappropriate and unfair to debate whether he was a homophobe by today’s sociopolitical standards. During a time when his fellow activists wanted to publicly out Bayard Rustin’s sexual identity, King befriended and worked closely with Rustin. If anything, he might have been ahead of his time on some aspects of LGBT rights.
Additionally, questioning King’s views on LGBT rights distracts from the work of other important activists and leaders of today and his day. On the same day that we celebrate King’s birthday, the first sitting president to publicly support same-gender marriage will be re-inaugurated. Coretta Scott King (Dr. King’s wife), Julian Bond, and other activists who continue to promote civil rights today have also advocated for LGBT rights. Maybe questioning King’s stance on homosexuality, same-gender marriage, and LGBT rights is merely a product of regularly analyzing and criticizing homophobia within Black communities (but ignoring it among white Americans).
Was Dr. King a homophobe (much like the rest of majority of Americans in his day and today) or an early ally for LGBT rights? It does not matter. King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech 50 years ago! It is time that we have a new dream for the 21st century. For example, Vice President Joe Biden noted that fighting for the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people is the “civil rights issue of our time.” We continue to see threat after threat posed to the rights and opportunities of women and girls. Roe v. Wade and efforts to include gender identity and expression in federal non-discrimination laws were components of a future King could not predict.
Beyond dreaming a new dream, it is time to complicate our vision for equality. The fights for racial equality, gender equality, LGBT rights, equal opportunity, accessibility, access to health care, and so on are not separate causes; rather, they are fundamentally related and intersecting. Somewhat similar to film Inception, the notion of a “dream within a dream,” we need to recognize that many people are disadvantaged by these multiple, intersecting systems of oppression and inequality.
Finally, while still celebrating the amazing legacy of Dr. King, we need to begin making room for other dreamers. In one way, this means uncovering components of history that have been lost, forgotten, or erased. It is great to see, for example, more and more discussion about the activism of Bayard Rustin, especially that he was the CO-organizer of the March on Washington. Also, it is important to challenge the narratives of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that tells of Rosa Parks as a tired woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus; Rosa Parks was an activist and member of NAACP. Beyond recognizing and remembering the work of other civil rights activists, it is critical to acknowledge important work of today’s activists, scholars, and politicians.