President Lyndon Johnson was a "changed man," according to Time, after he delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, introducing his long-awaited Voting Rights Act. The act, signed into law Aug. 6, 1965, was intended to remove the many barriers to African Americans' exercising their constitutional right to vote.
In his speech that night, President Johnson said:
[The American Negro] has been called upon to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery and his faith in American democracy? For at the real heart of the battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends, not on the force of arms or tear gas, but depends upon the force of moral right.
When I recently read Johnson's stirring words in historian Gary May's 2013 book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, I imagined him today referring to "the American homosexual." As in the black civil rights movement, there beats strongly at the heart of the LGBT equality movement "a deep-seated belief in the democratic process."
Our struggle to end workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, to enjoy the rights and privileges of legally recognized marriage, to become fully equal American citizens in every way, continues the tradition of patriotic Americans striving "to make good the promise of America."
And yet there is great inequality within the LGBT community itself, arising from the same racial and class differences that continue to divide our country. There is also the same denial and obliviousness on the part of the overwhelmingly affluent white elite who control the agenda and public discourse on what it means to be a sexual minority in 21st-century America.
For my own part, my personal values and political views were shaped by growing up poor in a housing project in Groton, Conn. I didn't know back in the 1960s, when I was a student at Claude Chester Elementary School, playing high-stakes strip poker with the boys next door in the Poquonock Bridge neighborhood, that, besides sex, I was learning about equality, fairness and justice from my black friends who were as poor as we were.
In my late father's Marine Corps boot camp yearbook are snapshots of his friends -- black men -- during the Korean War era. He loved black music. My parents didn't consider it anything but ordinary that my sisters and I had black friends and babysitters (the Fields twins, Belinda and Valinda), or that my first crush was on a "colored" girl. (Remember, this was the '60s.) All our friends were always welcome at my family's dinner table. That's how I was taught to judge people on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin.
When my friends started dying from AIDS, in 1985, I and other gay men were outraged by the federal government's efforts to ignore the epidemic even as terrified, uninformed Americans perpetrated atrocities against gay men and families with HIV-positive children. Focusing my reporter's sights on the epidemic, I saw middle-class gay men lose everything -- their jobs, their family, and too often their gay friends -- when they developed AIDS. I saw their shortened lives end in poverty when they lost the medical insurance tied to their job after they got too sick to work and were forced to shed their assets to qualify for Medicaid and Social Security disability.
You might say I became radicalized when the values imbued in me from childhood contrasted so starkly with the obscene manner in which my gay brothers were treated in this wealthy country. Instead of being treated as equal American citizens and human beings entitled to dignified treatment, they were treated as if their lives had no value at all -- precisely the way black Americans still are treated much too often.
This is precisely why I find myself today speaking out against the injustice being perpetrated by gay people against others within our own community. Although I appreciate advocates' efforts to achieve full equality for LGBT people, I am shocked by their elitist attitude that fails to understand the most fundamental truth about the need for unity as expressed by Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
When they insist on advancing only one special interest, most notably marriage equality, to the exclusion of advocating as forcefully for the very right to life -- in the form of, say, proportionate funding of HIV prevention for gay men -- they further alienate people like me who support full equality for all LGBT people, not only white, college-educated, city- and suburb-dwelling gay men and lesbians who wish to be married.
When LGBT organization leaders meet in their national conclaves and fail to include HIV/AIDS on their agenda -- as prominent community leaders say happens regularly -- they send a very clear message to gay men of all colors whose health and lives continue to be at great risk from HIV, particularly young African-American gay men at greatest risk: "We're first. You go to the back of the bus."
I know I am not alone in feeling embarrassed and even a little sick as I see our largest LGBT civil rights organizations work hard to prove, like the Mattachines so many decades ago, that "we're just like you." I would also suggest that the LGBT equality movement is in trouble when the hunger for bourgeois "normalcy" overtakes the radical claim that launched the movement in the first place and that can be our most valuable contribution to "make good the promise of America": We may be different, but we are still equal.