Date: Sun, 17 Oct 1993 17:14:02 -0700 (PDT)
From: "Arthur R. McGee"
To: Don Mabry
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, Jr.
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*
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
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
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.