by Nathan James
I awoke this morning to a
Now, I have written in the past that the LGBT and black communities were not only connected with one another, but that both owe each other all the benefits they enjoy today. For this, of course, I have been flogged unmercifully, as if it were set in stone somewhere that blacks and gays were mutually exclusive, and never the twain shall meet. At the risk of more public flogging, I stand by my position, and I enlist the historical record to aid in my defense. I think that the record speaks very well for itself.
It’s 1955, Rosa Parks has defied Jim Crow and refused to give her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person, as the law required in those days. In response to her arrest, the local black community turned to a 26-year-old minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr. Meetings are held to devise a plan of action. Seeking guidance and direction on how to find the most effective means of protest, Rev. King looks to one Bayard Rustin, a black, gay advocate and strategist whose writings on nonviolence have impressed the young preacher. The fact that Rustin is gay, does not discourage King one iota. King knows that Rustin is the go-to man in matters of protest and petition.
Rustin travels to meet with King that year, and the counsel King receives from a gay man of color is crucial to the birth of the modern civil-rights movement, and establishes nonviolence as the means of protest. Rustin thus changes the course of history, and all people of color who live today, free of Jim Crow’s awful depredations, may add Rustin’s name to those to be thanked for their efforts.
Two years later, American literary icon James Baldwin writes and publishes the homoerotic novel Giovanni’s Room, establishing himself as a gifted writer of early gay lit. The book is banned from publication in the United States, but becomes a wild bestseller in Europe. Baldwin becomes known as both a gifted author of color and a gay man. These facts, however, do not deter Rev. King from seeking out and including Baldwin prominently in the civil-rights struggle during the 1960s. The FBI, in an attempt to separate King from men like Baldwin and Rustin, quietly warns King that both men are gay. King replies “I will not refuse the help of such wise and gifted men. As much as anyone, they have given our cause meaning and direction.” When his words are picked up by the Associated Press, the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize begins to understand that here is a man worthy of their accolades.
These are matters of undeniable fact, available for research by anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in the historical record. In spite of this, people continue to have the attitude that I speak heresy, whenever I cite the record. It is a mystery to me why so many people of color are “offended” by the idea that blacks and gays might ever share commonalities in their history. Gay men and women of color have contributed so much to the advancement of all people of color, that they are inextricably linked to the shared history of both. Conversely, people of color, through their tenacious and diligent struggles for equality, have opened the doors of tolerance for the LGBT community which would have remained locked, perhaps indefinitely.
In my studies of the art and literature of the civil-rights era, I find so many contributions to black history by gays and lesbians of color, it’s amazing. The great examination of the black experience of those days comes alive in the works of
So, “how dare I suggest” a common history between people of color and the gays and lesbians among them? What issue do I address that is so uncomfortable to some? Perhaps there has never been a “gay water fountain”, or a “gay building entrance”. Yet there were barriers to equality for gays every bit as formidable as the legal and structural barriers faced by blacks under Jim Crow. There was a time when sodomy laws forbade homosexual activity in all but two states. There was a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. There were no visible, structural barriers for gays because gays were considered to be deviant, criminal, and antisocial by their very existence, regardless of their color.
As people of color suffered under Jim Crow’s reign of subjugation and terror, gays of color suffered those hardships, plus the added stigma of being black and gay. To this day, debate rages over the need for, and type of, legal protection gays and lesbians should receive. This brings me back to the beginning of this essay. Legislation such as the Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the repeal of DOMA are needed to afford the Constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. For people of color to wish denial of these protections to a subset of their own community, is appalling. Some people are quick to deny the struggle, perseverance and triumph of those who came before them, and whose history they all share. In so doing, they diminish the value of the whole enterprise. How dare I suggest that!