In his second inaugural address two weeks ago, President Obama alluded to the Declaration of Independence and connected several major civil rights struggles in American history. He said, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears, through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” Though different in many ways, what the events in each of these places have in common is the way that they galvanized support for their respective movements. They shifted the course of history.
The President’s words were poignantly spoken on the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, the day when I also have an annual tradition of reading one of MLK’s most influential and oft-quoted works: the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”. (If you have not read, or recently re-read this masterpiece of American writing and philosophy, I strongly encourage you to do so now. It is long, but well worth the read.) Despite having been written 50 years ago for a different movement, I found that for those engaged in LGBT issues today, there is much that is still applicable. As we begin Black History Month, let us learn and gain inspiration from one who has been there before.
Some Background on the Letter
In the open letter, King responds to eight white clergymen who had published their own letter a few days prior criticizing the demonstrations and civil disobedience in Birmingham that had resulted in his imprisonment. While noting that he rarely responded to criticism of his work and ideas (as such would take nearly all his time and prevent constructive work), King expressed that since he viewed the clergymen as “men of genuine good will” he felt compelled to explain his motivations and philosophy.
Mormons engaged in advocacy for LGBT civil rights often face similar criticisms from our own co-religionists, and the same challenge of explaining our position. It is here where we can draw our first lesson: When questioned, rather than denouncing our brothers and sisters for their failure to see what appears so obvious to us, we should presume that they are sincere and well-meaning in their critique, and then with patience and respect illustrate the reasons that we have come to the place where we are.
Understand Why You Are Here
One of the first criticisms lobbed at King by the clergymen was that he was an “outsider”. What business did he have coming from Atlanta to lead protests in Birmingham? In response, King taught: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Whenever I face the question of why I have been attracted to the struggle for equal civil rights for LGBT individuals and families, I inevitably fall back on this reasoning: These are my brothers and sisters. I cannot be as Cain and ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, for I know that I am. And so I cannot stand by and watch idly as my kin suffer rejection, abuse and discrimination.
Though I – as a married heterosexual man – may not be personally affected by anti-gay prejudice, once I recognize the mutuality that we all share, I am compelled to follow the Christian creed to “love they neighbor as thyself” and act as I would were I in their shoes.
Recognize that You Are Needed
MLK expressed his dismay with the “white moderate”, who appeared to be supportive, but didn’t actually lend much support. Of these, he noted: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Moderate Mormons can similarly be caught up in concerns of how they’ll appear to others in the ward or wonder if they’ll face discipline for supporting the LGBT cause. To these, I say: “If you’re worried, stop. Come join us.” You may get some pushback from certain individuals, but you’ll be surprised at the kudos that will come from unexpected and unlikely places. And you’ll meet new friends and be moved by their stories.
Rev. King also provides this assurance: “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.”
I must admit: I don’t know what it feels like to be stuck in the wrong body or to have deep-seated attraction to members of the same sex. I haven’t lived in fear that my family might one day find out who I am. I haven’t been tossed out on the street to fend for myself as a teenager, or faced excommunication because of who I love.
But even though I haven’t lived that experience, I have heard enough stories to recognize that things need to change. More importantly, I recognize that my voice can help make that happen. Ever since I came out as an ally, the LGBT community has welcomed me with open arms and put me to work. All the recent victories for gay rights were enabled in no small part by the growing chorus of allies who have lent their support. But even if Carol Lynn Pearson is right that we have passed the “tipping point”, strong allies are still too small in quantity. Laborers are still being called to push the work along. Will you join in?
Self-Purification is Essential
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”
Three of the above steps that King listed seem obvious to anyone fighting for civil rights: 1.) determine what is wrong, 2.) ask for change, and if those in power refuse to engage you, 3.) take actions that will compel them to negotiate. But the good reverend highlighted something else that is vital to our success: self-purification. That is to say, before engaging in direct actions (or any activism for that matter), we must see to it that our motives are pure, that our character is above reproach, and that we are mentally and emotionally prepared to handle any backlash we may encounter.
The road of the advocate must always be the high one, especially for Mormons. We simply cannot afford to hand tools to the opposition by acting out of anger, or engaging in mean-spirited, disrespectful or attacking speech. Neither can we let our moral character be called into question and thus used to discredit our cause. If we claim to be disciples of Christ, we must act like it “at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9).
The march from Selma to Montgomery was such a powerful moment precisely because of the self-purification of the participants. When Americans saw on TV the images of white policemen beating scores of peaceful marchers who did not retaliate, it was not difficult to determine whose motives were damnable and whose cause was just.
Likewise, we have seen and will continue to see vitriol and abuse spewing forth from anti-gay individuals and organizations. Bullying and familial rejection will, sadly, continue.
Unfortunately though, I have witnessed far too much ugly behavior from LGBT activists as well. Many in our camp have been disrespectful and condescending, have tried to intimidate those with contrary views, engaged in ad hominem attacks and have even resorted to occasional acts of vandalism. Such behavior is unbecoming and unproductive. It muddies the waters of public opinion and undermines our goals.
During the recent marriage equality campaign in Maryland, I was proud to see the quick and unequivocal condemnation issued by LGBT leaders after a Chick-Fil-A was vandalized with pro-same-sex marriage stickers and messages. However I wish we had gone one step further and offered to dispatch volunteers immediately to help clean up the store’s exterior. Imagine the message such an action would have sent, both to our own camp and the larger society!
The way of the activist is inevitably marked by opposition. Were it not so, there would be little reason to advocate. But before we go out to encounter tensions and disagreement (sometimes even within our own camp!), we must honestly look inside ourselves and ask: “Am I mature enough to accept criticism and respond to attacks with kindness? Am I willing to respond to evil with good? Am I striving to act as the Savior would?”
Some Mormons will instinctively regard those who support LGBT rights as having undoubtedly departed from the straight and narrow. They will grasp at anything they can to reinforce their misperception. The only way to convince them otherwise is to consistently demonstrate by your actions that, in fact, you are a good person, engaged in a right and just cause.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. showed, exercising moral leadership is the only way that we will gain more supporters – especially within Mormonism – and ultimately attain the goals we hope to see: a world where our LGBT brothers and sisters are accepted, loved and treated with the same dignity and fairness that we ourselves expect. And it starts with ourselves.