May 17 1997
All prejudices are not equal. But that doesn't mean there's no comparison between the predicaments of gays and blacks.
By Henry Louis Gates,
For some veterans of the civil-rights era, it's a matter of stolen prestige. "It is a misappropriation for members of the gay leadership to identify the April 25 march on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 mobilization," one such veteran, the Reverend Dennis G. Kuby, wrote in a letter to the editor that appeared in the Times on the day of the march. Four days later, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee's hearings on the issues of gays in the military, Lieutenant General Calvin Waller, United States Army (retired), was more vociferous. General Waller, who, as General Norman Schwarzkopf's second-in-command, was the highest-ranking black officer in the Gulf War's theatre of operations, contemptuously dismissed any linkage between the gay-rights and civil-rights movements. "I had no choice regarding my race when I was delivered from my mother's womb," General Waller said. "To compare my service in America's armed forces with the integration of avowed homosexuals is personally offensive to me." This sentiment -- that gays are pretenders to the throne of disadvantage that properly belongs to black Americans, that their relation to the rhetoric of civil rights is one of unearned opportunism -- is surprisingly widespread. "The backlash is on the streets among blacks and black pastors who do not want to be aligned with homosexuals," the Reverend Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, crowed to the Times in the aftermath of the march.
That the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorsed the April 25th march made the insult all the deeper for those who disparage the gay-rights movement as the politics of imposture - Liberace in Rosa Parks drag. "Gays are not subject to water hoses or police dogs, denied access to lunch counters or prevented from voting," the Reverend Mr. Kuby asserted. On the contrary, "most gays are perceived as well educated, socially mobile and financially comfortable." Even some of those sympathetic to gay rights are unhappy with the models of oppression and victimhood which they take to be enshrined in the civil-rights discourse that many gay advocates have adopted. For those blacks and whites who viewed last month's march on Washington with skepticism, to be gay is merely an inconvenience; to be black is to inherit a legacy of hardship and inequity. For them, there's no comparison. But the reason the national conversation on the subject has reached an impasse isn't that there's simply no comparison; it's that there's no *simple* comparison.
Prejudices, of course, don't exist in the abstract; they all come with distinctive and distinguishing historical peculiarities. In short, they have content as well as form. Underplaying the differences blinds us to the signature traits of other forms of social hatred. Indeed, in judging other prejudices by the one you know best you may fail to recognize those other prejudices *as* prejudices.
To take a quick and fairly obvious example, it has been observed that while anti-black racism charges its object with inferiority, anti-Semitism charges its object with iniquity. The racist believes that blacks are incapable of running anything by themselves. The anti-Semite believes (in one popular bit of folklore) that thirteen rabbis rule the world.
How do gays fit into this scheme? Uneasily. Take that hard- ridden analogy between blacks and gays. Much of the ongoing debate over gay rights has fixated, and foundered, on the vexed distinction between "status" and "behavior." The paradox here can be formulated as follows: Most people think of racial identity as a matter of (racial) status, but they respond to it as behavior. Most people think of sexual identity as a matter of (sexual) behavior, but they respond to it as status. Accordingly, people who fear and dislike blacks are typically preoccupied with the threat that they think blacks' aggressive behavior poses to them. Hence they're inclined to make exceptions for the kindly, "civilized" blacks: that's why "The Cosby Show" could be so popular among white South Africans. By contrast, the repugnance that many people feel toward gays concerns, in the first instance, the status ascribed to them. Disapproval of a sexual practice is transmuted into the demonization of a sexual species.
In other respects, too, anti-gay propaganda sounds less like anti-black rhetoric than like classical anti-Jewish rhetoric: both evoke the image of the small, cliquish minority that nevertheless commands disproportionate and sinister worldly influence. More broadly, attitudes toward homosexuals are bound up with sexism and the attitudes toward gender that feminism, with impressive, though only partial, success, asks us to re-examine.
That doesn't mean that the race analogy is without merit, or that there are no relevant points of comparison. Just as blacks have historically been represented as sexually uncontrollable beasts, ready to pounce on an unwilling victim with little provocation, a similar vision of the predatory homosexual has been insinuated, often quite subtly, into the defense of the ban on gays in the military.
But can gays really claim anything like the "victim status" inherited by black Americans? "They admit to holding positions at the highest levels of power in education, government, business and entertainment," Martin Mawyer, the president of the Christian Action Network, complains, "yet in the same breath, they claim to be suffering discrimination in employment." Actually, the question itself is a sand trap. First, why should oppression, however it's measured, be a prerequisite for legal protection? Surely there's a consensus that it would be wrongful, and unlawful, for someone to discriminate against Unitarians in housing or employment, however secure American Unitarians were as a group. Granted, no one can legislate affection or approval. But the simple fact that people enjoy legal protection from religious discrimination neither confers nor requires victimization. Why is the case of sexual orientation any different?
Second, trying to establish a pecking order of oppression is generally a waste of time: that's something we learned from a long-standing dialogue in the feminist movement. People figured out that you could speak of the subordination of women without claiming, absurdly, that every woman (Margaret Thatcher, say) was subordinate to every man. Now, the single greatest predictor of people's economic success is the economic and educational level of their parents. Since gays, like women, seem to be evenly distributed among classes and races, the compounding effect of transgenerational poverty, which is the largest factor in the relative deprivation of black America, simply doesn't apply. Much of black suffering stems from historical racism; most gay suffering stems from contemporary hatred. It's also the case that the marketing surveys showing that gays have a higher than average income and education level are generally designed to impress potential advertisers in gay publications; quite possibly, the surveys reveal the characteristics only of gays who are willing to identify themselves as such in a questionnaire. Few people would be surprised to learn that secretiveness on this matter varies inversely with education and income level.
What makes the race analogy complicated is that gays, as demographic composites, do indeed "have it better" than blacks -- and yet in many ways contemporary homophobia is more virulent than contemporary racism. According to one monitoring group, one in four gay men has been physically assaulted as a result of his perceived sexual orientation; about fifty percent have been threatened with violence. (For lesbians, the incidence is lower but still disturbing.) A moral consensus now exists in this country that discriminating against blacks as teachers, priests, or tenants is simply wrong. (That doesn't mean it doesn't happen.) For much of the country, however, the moral legitimacy of homosexuals, as homosexuals, remains much in question. When Bill Crews, for the past nine years the mayor of the well-scrubbed hamlet of Melbourne, Iowa, returned home after the April 25th march, at which he had publicly disclosed his homosexuality for the first time, he found "Melbourne Hates Gays" and "No Faggots" spray-painted on his house. What makes the closet so crowded is that gays are, as a rule, still socialized -- usually by their nearest and dearest -- into shame.
Mainstream religious figures -- ranging from Catholic archbishops to orthodox rabbis -- continue to enjoin us to "hate the sin": it has been a long time since anyone respectable urged us to, as it were, hate the skin. Jimmy Swaggart, on the other hand, could assure his millions of followers that the Bible says homosexuals are "worthy of death" and get away with it. Similar access to mass media is not available to those who voice equivalent attitudes toward blacks. In short, measured by their position in society, gays on the average seem privileged relative to blacks; measured by the acceptance of hostile attitudes toward them, gays are worse off than blacks. So are they as "oppressed"? The question presupposes a measuring rod that does not and cannot exist.
To complicate matters further, disapproval of homosexuality has been a characteristic of much of the black-nationalist ideology that has reappeared in the aftermath of the civil- rights era. "Homosexuality is a deviation from Afrocentric thought, because it makes the person evaluate his own physical needs above the teachings of national consciousness," writes Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, of Temple University, who directs the black-studies program there, one of the country's largest. Asante believes that "we can no longer allow our social lives to be controlled by European decadence," and argues that "the redemptive power of Afrocentricity" provides hope of a cure for those so afflicted, through (the formulation has a regrettably fascist ring) "the submergence of their own wills into the collective will of our people."
In the end, the plaintive rhetoric of the Reverend Mr. Kuby and those civil-rights veterans who share his sense of unease is notable for a small but significant omission: any reference to those blacks who are also gay. And in this immediate context one particular black gay man comes to mind. Actually it's curious that those who feel that the example of the 1963 march on Washington has been misappropriated seem to have forgotten about him, since it was he, after all, who organized that heroic march. His name, of course, was Bayard Rustin, and it's quite likely that if he had been alive he would have attended the march on Washington thirty years later.
By a poignant historical irony, it was
in no small part because of his homosexuality -- and the fear that it would
be used to discredit the mobilization -- that Rustin was prevented from
being named director of the 1963 march; the title went to A. Philip Randolph,
and he accepted it only on the condition that he could then deputize Rustin
to do the arduous work of co-ordinating the mass protest. Rustin accepted
the terms readily. In 1963, it was necessary to choose which of two unreasoning
prejudices to resist, and Rustin chose without bitterness or recrimination.
Thirty years later, people marched so his successors wouldn't have to make
that costly choice.