Currently I’m leading my Advanced Composition students through an examination of the argumentative strategies of Martin Luther King. In fact, I really should be reading their essays on the subject rather than writing this. Most discussion of King tends toward the hagiographic, but close analysis finds he was in fact a master manipulator, who resorted to hyperbole, logical fallacy, and even played the race card, as when he threatens the readers of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with a racial holocaust that he alone is valiantly holding back. Great stuff.
But recent events have lead me to pay greater attention to one passage in the “Letter” that I had generally overlooked beyond the analogy to the controversial drug thalidomide. King’s adversaries are telling him to wait, to trust the legal system rather than confrontation. He replies that “wait” usually means “never.” I’m sure we all have experience with that. It’s like when you and your older brother pool your allowances to buy some choice candy, and he says because he’s older he should go first, at which point he eats all the good stuff, leaving you little. When you object, he says that you can go first next time, but you know well that next time he’ll go first again. Assuming he even agrees to a next time.
King says that tension must be maintained, that his non-violent protest movement is necessary to spur action. And there’s validity to that. But let’s look at it further. If the choice is, as suggested, between waiting and confrontation, is confrontation really better? In light of the current deliberations of the US Supreme Court, not necessarily. At issue is the legality of gay marriage, a cornerstone to gay rights and general legitimizing of homosexuals in society. It’s unclear how the Court will rule (although most people are confident of what eight of the nine justices will do). It’s likely that action will not be taken. And it’s illustrative that Chief Justice Roberts put it most significantly when he said, in effect, we shouldn’t move too fast. In other words – say it with me – “Wait.”
This should, I suppose, be seen as a huge setback for gay rights. It’s not, even by those who are pressing most strongly. As many people on all sides of the debate have noted, the perspective in the US on gay rights is changing. Indeed, in less than a decade, it’s been often pointed out, the subject of gay marriage has shifted from majority disapproval to majority approval. More people accept and support gay marriage than oppose in this country. Less than ten years ago, that was not the case. The reason for this shift has been largely painted as a demographic one. That is, younger people are more tolerant and accepting of things like homosexuality, and they are increasingly coming to outnumber the people who are not. It is reasonable to assume this trend will continue, and in the forseeable future we as a society will reach a point where we look back and say, “What was the big deal?” much the way we look back at the controversy around inter-racial marriage today. And how will we reach that point? By waiting.
This is not to say that political action hasn’t played a part. But it’s worth comparing the gay rights movement of today to that of the 70’s, the time of the Stonewall riots. Back then, activists were highly confrontational, even inflammatory. Activists were spoiling for a fight. When I was in the teacher credentialing program, there was one student who was very outspoken about his orientation, to the point that it informed everything he said and did. Notably, he spoke with enthusiasm about beginning the job search, and looking forward to being turned down for the job so he could sue for discrimination. As though it couldn’t possibly be simply because he wasn’t the most qualified applicant. Really? That’s why you’re becoming a teacher? Nice. I’m ashamed to say that I was hoping he wouldn’t get the job, not because of his sexual orientation, but rather because of his hostile, politically-driven attitude. I know plenty of teachers who turn their classrooms into a soapbox for their political causes, and I find that offensive. And that’s college, where the students are there by choice. This guy wanted to teach high school! But I digress.
People during that time were very provocatively “out,” and high profile gays who weren’t often found themselves forcibly “outed” (a strange development for a movement supposedly about individual freedoms. It seemed people were fighting for the right to be flamboyantly gay, but not the right to remain closeted, even if that’s what you wanted.
At the time homosexuality was being presented by activists in ways that were intended to be offensive. It was like shoving every negative stereotype in the enemy’s face. “You don’t like to see men kiss? Well watch this!” Followed by a big sloppy one.
What was the result of all this? Not much progress, but a lot of gay-bashing. By being exactly what homophobes feared, activists did nothing to get such people to change their views. The advent of AIDS only served to inflame people’s fears, making homosexuality the cause of all the world’s evil. Granted, the arrival of one of the most significant epidemics of recent history had nothing to do with homosexuality per se and it would be deeply offensive to even imply any blame. But it was the worst possible timing.
But, perhaps because AIDS led to a change in the “gay lifestyle” (if there is such a thing), gays began to embrace, and strive for, monogamy to a greater degree. The majority of gays already preferred committed relationships, in a rate commensurate with straight people, and we should note AIDS changed sexual attitudes across society, not just among homosexuals. But with the change of focus, the gay rights movement became less about sexuality and more about relationships. And as people came to understand that gays didn’t want to attack traditional relationship institutions, but to become part of them, it became harder for people to reject that.
Essentially, it means that when people objected to homosexuals because “they’re all promiscuous,” responding in the form of over-the-top promiscuity didn’t help. On the other hand by saying, “We’re ‘promiscuous’ only because you will not legitimize the commitment we crave and that you fault us for not having. Let us make the same commitment you make, and you will find us to be at least as honorable as heterosexual couples, at least the ones on reality TV.” And, really, it’s not hard to beat that record. Can anyone name even one reality show that celebrates homosexual debauchery the way heterosexual licentiousness is on shows like “JerseyShore”? There aren’t any.
The point, ultimately, is that King was right that tension is needed. But he was wrong that “wait” means never. Waiting may be intolerable, but, as we are likely seeing in the matter of gay rights, sometimes it’s what makes progress possible.
As a straight person, what does this have to do with me? Beyond a general belief in live and let live, more than you might think. I’m already clear on calling for greater sexual freedom for all. But there’s a lesson for me within my own words here, a lesson about what does – and does not – win people to your perspective, and I will address that in my next article.