From Black to Gay: Julian Bond on Civil Rights and Gay Rights

There is an inextricable connection between the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the contemporary movement for LGBTQ rights. So says veteran civil rights leader and former NAACP chair Julian Bond.
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There is an inextricable connection between the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the contemporary movement for LGBTQ rights. So says veteran civil rights leader and former NAACP chair Julian Bond.

While many individuals and groups have opposed Bond's efforts to establish a close alliance between civil rights and gay rights, he dismisses his dissenters as "homophobic" and as "religious extremists" intent on replacing human laws with those "dictated by religion."

Bond's naysayers typically cite several reasons for disputing a connection between the two movements. One reason relates to their denial that homosexuality is a characteristic like race. Rev. Walter Fauntroy, King's friend and colleague, articulates this point with remarkable clarity. "The essential difference between the Black civil rights struggle and the gay rights struggle," he says, "is that Black people are discriminated against on the basis of something we cannot change, our race; gays are discriminated against on the basis of their behavior, something that can be changed."

A second argument states that the injustice encountered by gays does not come close to the suffering endured by blacks. In a 2004 speech at Harvard University, Rev. Jesse Jackson, although a public advocate of gay rights, claimed that "the comparison with slavery is a stretch in that some slave masters were gay, in that gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution and in that they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote."

A third reason for separating the two movements appeals to religion and ethics, claiming that homosexuality, unlike race, is sinful and immoral. When made by Christians, this position often wields biblical passages that appear to condemn gay sex. Gay rights are not civil rights, according to this stance, because there can never be a right to disobey the law of God, as dictated in scripture, particularly when such sinful disobedience destroys the family and corrupts children.

And a fourth reason points to Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. In October 2004 Rev. Bernice King directly appealed to her famous father during her participation in a campaign against a civil union bill in New Zealand. "I know deep down in my sanctified soul," she said, "that he did not take a bullet for same-sex unions." She did not offer any evidence to back her view, but one might point to a 1957 column in which Dr. King characterized homosexuality as a "problem" in need of therapy, or to his 1960 decision to ban the openly gay Bayard Rustin from his inner circle after Rep. (and Rev.) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of Harlem threatened to tell the media that King and Rustin were having a gay affair. They were not.

Julian Bond thinks Bernice King is "homophobic," and he dismisses all the above arguments as lacking in substance.

Bond disputes biblical fundamentalists like Fauntroy by claiming that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice. "Science has demonstrated conclusively," he says, "that sexual disposition is inherent in some; it's not an option or alternate they've selected. In that regard it exactly parallels race. ... Like race, our sexuality isn't a preference. It's immutable, unchangeable."

Bond also opposes the historical point. While conceding that "no parallel between movements for rights is exact," that gays do not have a history identical to slavery, and that "people of color carry the badge of who we are on our faces," Bond insists that linking the two movements together is the common historical experience of discrimination because of biological characteristics. "At bottom," he says, "it's these immutable characteristics [that couple the movements]. And you cannot be discriminated in this country for who you are."

On the issue of religion, Bond replies with a dose of tolerance and admonishment. "If your religion tells you that gay people shouldn't get married in your church," he says, "that's fine with me. Just don't let them get married in your church. But don't stop them from getting married in city hall." Marriage is a civil right granted by the government, not a religious right granted by churches, and religious believers "ought not to force their laws on people of different faiths or people of no faith at all."

With these arguments in tow, Bond has consistently maintained for years that gay rights are civil rights. "Of course they are," he states. "Civil rights are positive legal prerogatives -- the right to equal treatment before the law. These are rights shared by all. There is no one in the United States who does not -- or should not -- share in these rights."

And what about Dr. King? "I believe in my heart of hearts," Bond says, "that were King alive today, he would be a supporter of gay rights. He would see this as just another in a series of battles of justice and fair play against injustice and bigotry. He would make no distinction between this fight [for gay rights] and the fight he became famous for."

Is Julian Bond right to align Martin Luther King, Jr. with the movement for LGBTQ rights?

Three potential problems arise: First, there is no evidence to suggest that King understood homosexuality as an immutable characteristic. In fact, way back in 1957, he believed that homosexual feelings were "probably not innate." Second, even though gay rights had indeed become a national issue during his lifetime -- mainstream media filed major reports on it -- King never once spoke publicly about the issue. And third, it's historically untenable to state, without qualification, that a deceased position would hold X or Y position if he or she were alive today. People change.

Still, there are significant reasons to suggest that Bond is on the right track.

First, unlike Walter Fauntroy, King, also a Baptist preacher, never used the Bible to condemn gays or homosexuality. Biblical support for slavery alone made him wary of biblical fundamentalism and, consequently, he adopted other moral authorities, like the Bill of Rights, when inviting us to dream about the inclusive beloved community.

Second, unlike those who focus merely on race, King had an expanding notion of civil rights and the movement. His civil rights work began with issues of public accommodation and transportation, shifted later to issues of political participation and economic justice, and then focused on world peace and liberation movements across the globe. King refused to restrict his understanding of civil rights and the movement to issues related solely to race and ethnicity.

Third, and perhaps most important, is King's firm conviction that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inheres in each and every person simply by virtue of his or her existence. The civil rights leader held that these inalienable rights, as well as all rights identified in the U.S. Constitution, are political expressions of the theological reality that God created all people to be free, equal and bound together in one human family.

Fourth, that last point -- the reality of one human family -- led King to conceive of justice as indivisible, for one and for all. As King understood it, the struggle for civil rights was a positive movement to establish justice within a community that gives individuals -- all individuals -- the space and resources required for realizing their God-given dignity, equality and freedom in a spirit of cooperation with all other individuals.

So where does all this leave us?

With Julian Bond, of course -- or at least with his general point.

Yes, King never saw homosexuality as "immutable," nor did he ever publicly welcome gays at the front gate of the beloved community. But King certainly left behind a gold key for the LGBTQ community, namely his belief that civil rights are human rights, far more than race-specific; that the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belongs to each and every person; and that justice is for all, no matter who one is or what one does.

King never put 1 and 1 together, of course: he was too prejudiced to see the implications of his own philosophy for LGBTQ folks. Like the slave owner Thomas Jefferson, King expressed a philosophy whose full importance he never quite grasped, let alone enacted.

But just as King took Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence more seriously than the founding father himself did, we can take King's beliefs more seriously than the civil rights leader himself ever did -- and actively support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals struggling for their own human rights and for their own justice.

Indeed, what better way to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., than by joining Julian Bond in turning that gold key and swinging the gate wide open so that everyone can enter into the beloved community?

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