Monday, February 4, 2008

A Teachable Moment for All

With all of the excitement (or dismay) over the New York Giants' Super Bowl upset last night in Glendale and at least one subsequent street celebration on top of two garbage trucks in Union Square, this writer felt it a bit appropriate to take a step back from the early February sports festivities to perhaps more bread and butter issues discussed on this forum.

A long-time friend forwarded me a posting from an acquaintance's Myspace profile talking about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and how LGBT people remain second class citizens in this country without basic protections. She further pointed out how women of color cannot lose their jobs because of their race or how a Wal-Mart greeter cannot be terminated solely because of his or her age or how a Christian employee cannot be fired because of their faith. This acquaintance concluded 'almost 30 years after the Civil Rights movement, it's time for employment discrimination against gays and lesbians to end.'

This person is a straight white woman whose heart is certainly in the right place but her messaging around LGBT rights raises some potentially problematic points of contention that activists and others have repeatedly raised over the years. Comparing one struggle to another is almost never helpful despite the best of intentions. And the messenger who delivers these comparisons can either help or hurt the broader cause of equality. While at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, I would always caution against these comparisons as a '20-something gay white man from New Hampshire' who did not live during the Civil Rights struggle. The late Coretta Scott King could certainly (and effectively) make this comparison based on the work she and her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did throughout their lives. I, and others who did not share this experience, arguably cannot.

Straight allies certainly serve a vitally important role within the movement for LGBT rights and its efforts on behalf of LGBT Americans. But they, like everyone, have a responsibility to educate themselves about the issues and the impact their statements and messages have on their own advocacy and those around them they claim to support. To fail on this important responsibility simply breeds more ignorance that helps no one.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with this blog entirely, if indeed I even understand it. I've never in my life heard someone say, until now, that we can't compare our gay civil rights struggle to those of other oppressed peoples BECAUSE WE DID NOT LIVE THROUGH THAT TIME. And Coretta Scott King can because she did live through it? When did this idea become in vogue, or did you just make it up? Why are we incapable of learning about other human rights struggles and drawing parallels to our own? As a 51 year old gay male, I find that the older I get, the easier it is to make comparisons and see over-arching political struggles in a similar light. The idea that it is "almost never helpful" to do so is just the weirdest thing I have ever heard. What, it's not helpful to explain that it is just as bizarre to discriminate on the basis of skin genetics as it is to discriminate on the basis of how hormones influence the brain? It's not helpful to show how the Bible has been used throughout history to discriminate against blacks and women in order to show how it is being used to harm gays? This is almost like saying it is bad to develop critical thinking skills-- skills that help us make abstract comparisons of events throughout history. Might as well dump all scholarship while your at it.
Actually, now that I think about it, I did once run into something similar to this before. I was in an internet discussion group and wrote about homophobia in India in the light of the destruction of movie house that were showing the "gay" film, Fire. An Indian wrote back and said that I could not critisize this because I was not Indian. It astonished me that someone would think that criticism of discrimination was the priviledge of only the people who live in a certain culture. My counter-argument was obvious-- that people criticizing from outside was just as much a part of of the flow of ideas as criticism from within, and that it is HELPFUL to have people with an outsiders viewpoint with different life experiences contribute to the dialogue.
I feel that same way about this blog's issue-- it is absolutely vital to hear the brainstorming of people who have developed the critical thinking skills to analyze an compare historical movements over broad periods of time. If someone can't see the point of comparing the gay Gandhis at SOULFORCE with the actual Gandhi and his protoge Martin Luther King Jr, that's their problem. I say, let the comparisons begin!!!! =---=-=-= om=-=-=- Nick

Anonymous said...

Nick, I complete agree with you. I find that many gay, white men who were raised in a very white environment are of Mr. Lavers' opinion. (Not that I know that this applies to him; I just wouldn't be surprised if it did.) I think such comparisons are valuable and healthy. One should not let the "white guilt complex" stop one from making such them.