After Proposition Eight passed in California, Kaia Tollefson, one of my colleagues at the university where I teach, hung a homemade poster on the wall outside her office. On the poster was the iconic image of Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School, surrounded by angry, hate-filled white people. Above that photograph my colleague drew a rectangle to represent the outline of another photograph, which she left blank. Next to this she wrote, “Vote for Proposition Eight? Insert your photo here!” One day, on one of my regular walks past her office, I noticed that someone had written “faulty argument” on her sign in tiny script with a ballpoint pen.
Before I get into the specifics of my concern about this, let me be clear about two things. First, I am a white, straight, upper-middle class American woman, and I know my argument will be inflected with and infected by those privileges. I am willing to be held accountable for how my position (mis)shapes my argument. Second, I have noticed that many white liberals have been blaming African Americans for the passage of Proposition Eight in California. I do not intend this article as part of that discourse, which is highly problematic for a number of reasons as Jonathan L. Walton outlined so beautifully in “Don’t Blame Black Voters: The Obama Non-Effect.” I do not blame African Americans for the passage of Proposition Eight. I blame heterosexism and homophobia, and the Christian communities that have been furiously engaged in the work of blessing that hatred and discrimination.
That said, I am deeply troubled by the notion that drawing parallels between the struggle for civil rights for African Americans and the struggle for civil rights for GLBTQ folks is a “faulty argument.” To deny that there are parallels obscures a key element that is, for me, deeply troubling: The forces opposing gay marriage and the forces supporting racism both use the Bible and Christianity to do their dirty work. Many of the arguments Christians use to prove that homosexuality is a sin and therefore not worthy of protection under the law (it says so in the Bible, it’s God’s will, it’s the natural order God intended for humanity)are the very same arguments that were used to justify slavery, to support segregation, and to sanction racism.
I remain unconvinced by articles, like Walton’s “Hitching a Freedom Ride: Gay Ain’t the New Black…,” which point out that the similarities between the two movements means denying that “injustice is contextually specific.” I know that many GLBTQ folks do not count as their history or their ancestors’ history being stolen from other countries and brought over in ships to be slaves, or being bought and sold as chattel, or being made legally 3/5ths of a human by the Constitution. I know many GLBTQ folks—at least those who are white—do not endure racism on a daily basis.
But I also know that homosexuals were among the first rounded up by the Nazis. And I know that people are murdered and beaten because they are gay, that GLBTQ folks are routinely viewed and named as deviant and as subhuman, and that discrimination sanctioned by our laws and referenda affect GLBTQ folks in profound ways that are hard to imagine by those with heterosexual privilege. Choosing to ignore those parallels allows heterosexism to flourish, which is itself a form of violence. It is yet another example of how we are willing to do theological and political backflips to retain the right to discriminate against those deemed less than “us”—a core component of this nation’s history.
It seems to me that behind many attempts to reject the links between the two movements is an essential belief that the discrimination GLBTQ folks experience on a daily basis—interpersonal discrimination, structural discrimination, physical violence, emotional violence, denial of civil rights—is not, in fact, discrimination. How, for example, can you deny the parallels between the struggle to make interracial marriage legal and the struggle to make gay marriage legal? To do so, you must believe that the desire of two men to marry each other is fundamentally different from the desire of a white man and a black woman to marry each other. And how can you justify this distinction? It seems to me it is only possible to do so if you think gay people should not be allowed to marry because you think homosexuality is wrong, immoral, and sinful. And if you think homosexuality is wrong, immoral, and sinful—a “lifestyle choice”—then you will not recognize the denial of the right to marry as a denial of civil rights.
Recognizing similarities between two different struggles for civil rights does not mean equating those struggles; it means that alliances can be built. The sign Kaia hung outside her office was not an attempt to co-opt the history of the struggle against racism in this country. She did not ask the viewer to insert his or her picture among the bigoted mob surrounding Elizabeth Eckford. She did not assume that a gay couple could take the place of Elizabeth Eckford and the photograph would retain its meaning. Rather, she suggested that photographs of people denying GLBTQ folks the right to marry have a place in the history of photographs of bigotry.
There is work to be done. Heterosexism is killing people in my neighborhood. On Tuesday, February 12, 2008, Lawrence King, a seventh grader, was shot in the head twice by his fourteen-year-old classmate in the computer lab at his school. The murder was classified as a hate crime. Reports indicate that King was targeted in part because he was gay and sometimes wore jewelry and makeup to school.
But he was not killed because he was gay. He was killed, as Kaia reminded me, because his killer was raised in a society that endorses (and even blesses) the ridicule, discrimination, and violence that GLBTQ people endure every day. I lay much of the blame for this boy’s murder and the passage of Proposition Eight in California at the feet of church communities, and at the same time, I remain hopeful that some of the tools needed to combat heterosexism can be found within church communities. If we deny the similarities between the fight for civil rights for African Americans and the fight for civil rights for GLBTQ folks, then I think we deny important resources for fighting against all kinds of church-sanctioned discrimination.