Twelve Years: Black Slaves and Gays

Robert A. Rees

“Analogy: a comparison between two things that are similar in some way.” (Bing Dictionary)

There are no perfect analogies but even imperfect analogies can be useful. The following analogy may be particularly imperfect but it may also be perfectly useful.

I just returned from watching Twelve Years a Slave, the film about Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northrup endured a dozen years of brutal servitude on Louisiana plantations before being freed. The film is disturbing and painful to watch because of the inhumane treatment of Solomon and other slaves by their white “masters” and overseers. I found myself both mesmerized and at times turning away from the violence against the powerless blacks who were considered the property of their white owners. Although I have read about this dark period in our history, have taught black authors who have written about slavery (including Nat Turner), and seen other films and photos depicting conditions under slavery, it wasn’t until Twelve Years that I understood on a deep visceral level what slavery must have felt like for those who suffered under it.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help thinking about the experience of LGBT Mormons over the past half century (and longer). I don’t want to make too much of this comparison, because they are clearly very different forms and degrees of oppression. By comparing them it might unfairly minimize the extreme, systematic misery caused by the institution of slavery. Meanwhile the suffering of some LGBT people should not necessarily be minimized either when one considers those who have been brutalized, murdered, and tortured, as well as those who committed suicide because of the oppression and ostracism they faced. There are parallels worth noting—and lessons worth learning in looking at the one in relation to the other, examining the similarities and the differences.

To begin with, in order to satisfy the prejudicial way in which enslaved blacks were viewed, Northrup (played brilliantly by the British star Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced to deny his identity as a free man and thus live a closeted life. To survive, he has to deny that he is free, is financially successful, and is a respected member of his mixed New York community. This includes pretending that he is illiterate. In other words, he is forced to dissemble, to appear to be what he is not, to wear a mask, just as gays and lesbians have had to do in American and Mormon culture, being in a world in which it is simply too dangerous to admit a condition that dare not name itself.

Like blacks under slavery (and to some extent from that time to the present), LGBT individuals have at times been seen as less than human (in the film blacks are referred to as baboons and dogs and are treated worse than the plantation owners’ animals). By and large, gays have not had to endure the worst kinds of treatment that slaves did—rape, brutal beatings, violent separation from their family members, and the denial of basic civil rights and due process for redress of grievances. Once again it might seem unfair to make a side by side comparison. However, it is worth noting that gay people most effectively escaped these persecutions because they were able to hide their identities more easily, but at the cost of significant psychological damage. Meanwhile, throughout history gay people have had to suffer different degrees of oppression that sometimes took extreme forms that resemble the treatment of slaves. Consider their treatment in Nazi Germany, and take note that the allies elected not to liberate gays from concentration camps even as they liberated other groups; the gay prisoners were compelled to complete the sentences imposed by the Nazis long after the war ended.

As I watched Northrup suffer humiliation, rejection and other indignities for those long years of servitude, my mind kept going to Bill Bradshaw’s study of gay Mormons showing that historically gay Mormons suffered a dozen or so years from the time they were first aware of their sexual orientation (age twelve) until their first disclosure of this to anyone (age twenty four). Those years of isolation, loneliness, and lostness are not unlike those suffered by Northrup. For both groups, fear and even terror were/are dominant emotions.

Another parallel between the groups is seen in the way that their dominant white Christian cultures have used scripture to justify maltreatment of individuals and groups whom they considered cursed (with, respectively, a dark skin or with what has been considered an aberrant sexual desire). Both groups have argued that their treatment of a minority group was sanctioned by holy writ and, by extension, God. One might argue that, like blacks, gays have been enslaved by religious despotism, emotional illiteracy, scientific mythology, and social ignorance.

One scene in the film was particularly haunting for me: Northrup is nearly hanged by a brutal overseer but saved at the last minute by a superior overseer. Nevertheless, hanging precariously from a noose tied to a tree, he is only able to stay alive by keeping the tips of his toes intermittently touching the ground. As he hangs there suffering hour after hour, the overseer, the mistress of the plantation, and his fellow slaves go on about their lives as if he weren’t even present, let alone in danger of dying. Finally, one fellow slave, risking being beaten herself, brings him a cup of water. As she did so, I thought of Jesus’ words in Matthew, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, was undoubtedly unaware of the irony of his words when he said, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  Those of us who consider ourselves followers of Christ have made a similar covenant, one against any form of tyranny over the minds, bodies and spirits of any of God’s children, including, in the language of the Book of Mormon, “black and white, bond and free, male and female.” Were he alive today, Nephi undoubtedly would add “gay and straight” to this list.

As noted at the outset, I don’t wish to push this comparison beyond its limits. Except for some notorious exceptions (one thinks of Matthew Shepherd, or the Nazi prisoners), for all of the discrimination and maltreatment gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons have had to endure, it shouldn’t be directly compared with the degradation, violence and brutality that black slaves in the nineteenth century endured. On the other hand, when so many LGBT individuals have been driven to attempt and commit suicide, we cannot afford to minimize their plight. And the oppression of gay people in places like Iran, Uganda and Russia are reaching abysmal levels. We cannot reverse the history of slavery or homophobia, but we do have it within our power to change the present and the future of all who suffer under the hands of an oppressive minority.

In an interview about the film, Steve McQueen, the director of Twelve Years, said, “It’s a narrative about today. It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything.” In speaking about the ending of the film when Solomon Northup finally gains his freedom but has to leave the rest of the blacks on the plantation locked in slavery, McQueen says, “It’s totally devastating. We don’t have too much control over too much of our circumstances. But what we can do, we have to do. What we can do we have to do. That’s it.”

Twelve years is a long time, a sixth of a lifetime, to be subject to any form of bondage. In Luke, Jesus says that among other things, he was sent “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and . . . set the oppressed free.” That is also our work, and it is just as important in relation to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals as it is to any group, no matter how close or how far the analogy. What we can do we have to do. That’s it.


3 comments for “Twelve Years: Black Slaves and Gays

Comments are closed.