On a trip to Atlanta this week, amid the same-sex marriage debate in my home state of New York , I had an opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr, memorial site for the first time. Watching footage of lynchings and segregationist racism, from the perspective of the age of Obama, caused me to reflect on how far we've come as a nation -- but also how a tragic pattern seems to be repeating itself.
What pattern? That oppressed groups, once they gain some measure of acceptance, tend not to fight for the rights of other minorities. The example that struck me at the MLK museum was that of my own Jewish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, many (though certainly not all) American Jews, still scarred by the Holocaust and antisemitism, found common ground with blacks struggling for civil rights. The two groups certainly had common enemies - and, for a time, they marched, campaigned, and protested together.
Eventually, as has been much lamented, this alliance began to fray. Some of this was due to increasing black militancy, and the fears of white America following the violence of 1968 and thereafter. Some of it was due to lingering racism within the Jewish community. But surely much of it is due to the fact that many American Jews no longer see themselves as an oppressed minority, thanks to decreases in antisemitism and increased acceptance of Jews in American public life, and have come to see other civil rights struggles as somehow different from their own. Even -- or should I say especially -- in the age of Obama, increasing numbers of American Jews side with the "majority" on civil rights issues relating to economic justice, racial inequality, and immigration - precisely because they no longer see themselves as a minority.
Of course, this response is hardly uniform - there are many, many American Jewish organizations working hard for justice in America and around the world. But as an American Jew myself, I am disgusted by the resurgence of racism in my community, and the short memory span of those who have particular reason to Remember.
Now, as a gay American, I see many of the same patterns within the African-American and Latino communities with respect to gay rights. Now that these communities are making strides in securing equality - though yes, there is still a long way to go - black and Latino leaders are at the forefront of the effort to deny civil rights to gay and lesbian Americans. In my home state of New York, for example, one of the leaders of the anti-marriage-equality coalition is Rubin Diaz, Sr., a preacher in the Bronx. And there are many others like him.
There are, of course, many differences between gay rights and civil rights for people of color. Or are there? Recall that pro-segregation forces found ample evidence in the Bible to support their position - the notion that God separated the races on different continents, for example. Recall that, as with same-sex marriage today, miscegenation had been prohibited since the Founding, and the "traditional definition of marriage" absolutely excluded multi-racial unions. And recall that - as I was reminded at the MLK museum - the forces of bigotry thought they were fighting a moral fight, with God on their side. It's no coincidence the Klan burned crosses. Civil rights was as much a religious issue for in the 1950s as gay rights is today.
Now, some might say, we know that ethnicity is something one is born with, but sexuality... well, maybe or maybe not. Let's lay this myth to bed. If sexuality is a choice, why do so many teenagers kill themselves for being gay? Why don't they just "choose" otherwise? If sexuality is a choice, why is reparative therapy a total failure? Sexuality is not a choice. Let's stop pretending that it is.
Nor is homosexuality quite as Biblically essential as some would have us believe. Two verses in Leviticus appear to prohibit anal sex between men. Four more verses in the New Testament abhor any kind of non-procreative sex - oral sex between straight people no less than homosexuality. This is a far more slender read than the "God Hates Fags" crowd would have us believe. The Levitical prohibition is of the same type as that against shellfish. Does God hate shrimp, too?
No - what's really going on here is that, as with the foes of civil rights, the Bible is being used as a cover for fear, hatred or worse. Homosexuality does indeed challenge some people's ideas of what it is to be a man or a woman, and I don't belittle the discomfort that creates. But mixed schools, mixed buses, and mixed water fountains were just as uncomfortable fifty years ago. Discomfort should be taken into account in how we implement change - but not whether it's right to implement it. (Incidentally, having gay friends, as Rev. Diaz does, does not excuse one from this mandate to reflect, just as "some of my best friends are black" doesn't excuse me .)
Let's remember the moral nature of civil rights. The point isn't to get rights for my group only; it's that the civil rights of the minority are the moral rights of everybody. Is the lesson of the Holocaust "never target Jews again"? Of course not - which is why it is relevant for Darfur, Cambodia, and Bosnia. Is the lesson of the struggle for civil rights only that Jim Crow was wrong? Of course not - it's that racism and discrimination are wrong, regardless of the target.
Make no mistake: gay rights is also a moral issue. It is even a religious one. One of Dr. King's many strokes of genius was to cast desegregation and antidiscrimination as a religious struggle; he refused to cede religion to the forces of hatred. We should likewise refuse. Mine is a God whose first expression of dissatisfaction is that "it is not good for man to be alone." Mine is a God who calls us, again and again, to reflect on what we think we know, to pursue justice, and to minimize suffering wherever we find it. And even if two Old Testament verses can be construed as prohibiting some homosexual acts, just as several can be used as condoning slavery and separation of the races, I find these deeper values far more central to the messages of Judaism and Christianity. People are suffering. There is inequality, and unfairness, in the way our society works. What are we going to do about it?
I'm not saying that the experiences of gays are just like that of African-Americans, or that the experiences of blacks are just like those of Jews, Poles, Italians, Latinos, or Asians. Every instance of discrimination is different. But the differences are not the point - the point is what they, and we, have in common.
Follow Jay Michaelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaymichaelson