"We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers . . . ."
Black History Month is drawing to a close. I had the pleasure of watching a documentary on the LOGO network entitled “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.” I must admit, I knew little about Rustin, and much of what I knew about him I learned from the HBO movie “Boycott.” He is my hero, and if you’re black in America, he should be yours. He should be why you support gay civil rights, and gay marriage in particular.
Rustin was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington and brought the teachings of non-violence to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. He was a Quaker who stood up for the rights of Japanese Americans during the Internment; he was at one time a Communist, I understand. And he was openly and unabashedly gay. Later in life he stated that the battle for gay civil rights was the next major civil rights battle.
Rustin was unwilling to let his sexuality and politics get in the way of the Civil Rights Movement and took a back seat when they threatened to divert attention toward him to the detriment of the aims of the movement. In other words, he made the achievement of civil rights for African Americans more important than his own identity. We as African Americans owe him; we owe him big. We stand on the shoulders of an African American gay Quaker communist intellectual.
I know that the wave of Obamaudacity that brought black folks out to the polls in the last presidential election also brought out a black wave that, although not completely responsible, was complicit in the passage of Proposition 8 in California. I wish Rustin had lived to see this and to make the same morally and logically undefeatable arguments for gay civil rights as he did for black civil rights. I just don’t get how a people who had to fight for civil rights would support the denial of the same civil rights – the right to marry, to serve in the military, you name it – to another group based solely on who they are.
I get that African Americans don’t like it when the movement for gay civil rights is compared to the movement for racial civil rights because of the implicit equalization of race to sexuality and because of a deeply embedded Christian disapproval of homosexuality. I get that. But if you take the Christianity and sexuality of the equation, which you should when you’re talking about the government’s right to limit the rights of others, what remains is the concept that, either by support or acquiescence, we are allowing the government to treat people unequally for being who they are without harm to anyone else. And, more often than not, we use our Christian faith as a justification for the government being able to do so. That’s a dangerous combination in my book, if you ask me. We’ve not “overcome” that much that we as African Americans are far from the risk of being “that” group of people treated unequally by the government for being who we are. That’s just not a power I’m willing to give to the government because they government can, has, and will, if allowed, use that same power against me.
To me, this is a classic example of black folks needing to learn what to “render unto Caesar.” Gay marriage isn’t about gays or marriage or faith – it’s about the government telling a group of people they can’t do something simply because of who they are. Gay marriage isn’t really about “marriage,” if you think of it in the religious sense, because no church is going to be forced to marry gay people because we limit the power of the government to tell churches and people of faith what they have to do. Since marriage is no longer solely a religious matter but a civil one since we let the government get in the business of licensing it and allowing for civil marriages, the government should not be allowed to keep marriage licenses from gays any more than it can keep business licenses from gays. And for those who argue that gay marriage is going to weaken the institution of marriage, here’s a newsflash: Marriage in America is already FUBAR (if you’ve served in the military, you know what that means – the “BAR” part means “beyond all recognition”; I’ll let you figure out the rest). We let murderers, rapists, and sexual predators behind bars get married in America. We let people who aren't here legally get married to those who are. We used to let thirteen year-olds get married in America. Hell, we let Charlie Sheen get married. We don’t have many limitations on who can get married – we don’t screen for compatibility, immigration status, genetic mutations, maturity, ability to support children, nothing. Any idiot can get married in America, as long as he or she isn’t gay. And many do.
As a matter of limiting government intrusion into the private lives and rights of citizens, I have a problem with the idea that a Christian majority can dictate the rights of a minority through the ballot box. I don’t think that my rights or anyone’s rights in American should be determined by a religious majority – that’s what the Constitution was intended to protect against: the tyranny of the majority. Because if and when we get a Muslim majority in America, I ain’t giving up my alcohol, my pork Ancho Chile burritos from Qdoba, and my faith. The problem is that Christians in American have a hard time visualizing the possibility of not being in the majority or how the imposition of their faith through government might oppress a minority. But African American Christians ought to know better because we know that even Christianity was used by white Americans to justify the government’s acquiescence in slavery.
If you’re black in America, you don’t have to like gay people. You don’t have to let them get married in your churches. But to say that they shouldn’t have the same rights as we do just because they’re gay? That’s just civil rights hypocrisy. Were Bayard Rustin alive, I would dare any African American to tell this man who sacrificed for our rights that his rights should be less than the very ones he achieved for us.
So when we African Americans sit at the front of a bus, file that EEOC complaint, drink from any damned fountain we want, and cast that vote at the polls unmolested, we stand not only on the shoulders of Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph, Rev. Abernathy, Rev. Jackson, John Lewis and many nameless, faceless people who marched and died on our behalves, but on the shoulders of Bayard Rustin, too. Before you try to deny someone else’s civil rights, remember where your own civil rights came from.
Now, go on and be that “angelic troublemaker” Rustin spoke of.
For more on “Brother Outside: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” visit rustin.org