Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Victim Wars:

The black writer Colbert I. King has a generally insightful column in the Post today that compares same-sex marriage bans to the anti-miscegenation statutes which once barred interracial marriages in 41 U.S. states.

The column is marred, however, by this smug little qualification:
Let's get one issue out of the way before the e-mails and letters start flooding in. I don't equate the long, bloody struggle of African Americans against racial injustice, ugly brutality and unjust treatment with the effort to give equal rights to lesbians and gay men.
Oh yes, the victim wars, that strange liberal pastime of ranking injustices and creating a heirarchy of victims. Who suffered more, African Americans or Native Americans? And which was worse: slavery, which lasted for centuries, or the Holocaust, which lasted just a few years? And what about white women? Where do they fit in on the discrimination continuum? They unquestionably suffered a lot under patriarchy; but a large number of them also benefited from the sweat of their black maids.

Then there are gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities. King is far from being the only prominent African American to reject comparisons between their civil rights movement and ours. Jasmyne Cannick of the National Black Justice Coalition recently made this sweeping statement:
I don't ever want to see a white gay man stand before a camera again and equate his struggle to the Black civil-rights movement.
This is a remarkably condescending rebuke coming from a person who, unlike white gay men in America, enjoys every single civil liberty recognized by the U.S. Constitution. But since some African Americans seem bent on raising the question, let’s go ahead and ask it: How does homophobia compare to racism?

We know that racism is a relatively modern idea, a construct developed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries largely to explain (and justify) slavery. In contrast, discrimination against those who engage in same-sex sexual behavior—death, castration, banishment, burning at the stake, electro-shock therapy—seems to have been well-established in the West as early as the times of Moses and Aristotle. Even in the ancient Greco-Roman world homoesexuality was to be confined to pederasty, temple prostitution, and the occasional lover; neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a concept of adult people of the same sex choosing to marry one another rather than a person of the opposite sex.

There are other differences between race and sexuality. African Americans have long formed a large, public community in the U.S. But due to the relatively small numbers of gay people, the possibility of hiding in the closet, and the fact we are not a group whose boundaries are determined by family or other readily identifiable traits, gays and lesbians never had a public community large enough to challenge prevailing views about homosexuality until the rise of large metropolitan cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the very idea of homosexuality as a sexual orientation came to be developed.

So where does this put us on the victim scale? We never experienced anything like slavery, but unlike blacks and women, we did not have the benefit of a community which could share our struggles--or even acknowledge them--until relatively recently. Thus, while the Quaker Susan B. Anthony could turn to other suffragists and her church for comfort, and while the slaves of the Old South could draw strength from their families and churches, gays and lesbians had literally no one to turn to because, the moment they did so, their families and religious leaders would have become their enemies.

Whether this makes our experience worse or only different and more lonely--I have no idea. I just know that, to whatever extent our movement bears resemblances the black civil rights movement, this gay white man will go on making comparisons between the two. Ms. Cannick and Mr. King would do well to listen to the comparisons rather than simply condemning them. They might even learn a thing or two about their own failure to live up to that principle of equality to which they claim such commitment.

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