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Happy Birthday, Dr. King, From a Gay Fan

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MLK and Bayard RustinMarking the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jeffrey King, Executive Director of In The Meantime Men, says:

The world is a better place because a people stood up for what was right.

This rainy Monday in Los Angeles, hundreds join in the annual march to honor Dr. King - including LGBT people of all colors.

Ironically, many parade participants and observers don't know that the famous 1963 March on Washington - where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech - was organized by his openly gay friend, Bayard Rustin.

Coretta lynn mayaNor might they know that one of the most forceful supporters of LGBT rights was Coretta Scott King - who introduced Bayard Rustin to her husband. And until her death in 2006, it was a white gay man - Lynn Cothren - who served Mrs. King as her closest assistant for 23 years. It was Cothren who served as chair of the program committee for the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, ensuring that there were three openly gay speakers on the program.

And it was Cothren who escorted poet Dr. Maya Angelou onstage at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church during the Feb. 7 funeral for Coretta Scott King. Angelou told me later:

I asked for him. He's always been to me like a son. He was a son to Coretta and a son to Betty [Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X], too.

[snip]

I am aghast and appalled at any people who decide that another group should not have their rights. We're all each other's people.

This is the spirit that infuses the activism of such longtime civil rights leaders as Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, John Lewis and Al Sharpton - who speak out in favor of LGBT rights in a way that surprises those who cleave to the stereotype that religious African Americans will not abide gay people as a biblical tenant.

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King is a clarion call for justice:

No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream!

It is also a call for unity to achieve that common good, as King said in his "Dream" speech:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

SPEECH_SA_B_^_SATURDAYI was 13 when I heard Dr. King speak those words on our black and white Admiral TV set. I was part of the "new generation" to whom the torch had been passed, as President John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural speech, and I felt King was speaking directly to me, as if he knew my secret alienation and desperate longing to belong. I was on the cusp of being an alcoholic Aquarian - a citizen of the world too ashamed of these furtive feelings for girls to allow myself to be authentic. But thanks to Dr. King and the civil rights movement, I was developing a deeply human sense of empathy.

It started when I was five. My father was deputy base commander at Tachikawa Air Force Base near Tokyo, Japan and I was bused to the civilian school off-base. Every now and then a large band of loud and violent Japanese college students waving signs that said "Yankee Go Home!" shouted at me and the other kids on the bus - scaring the shit out of us. Sometimes they would get so close to the window, I thought they'd break it, snatch me and spirit me away to kill me.

They hated me and I didn't know why. I never told my parents how frightened I was - a military brat is not supposed to show pain or fear. And when I asked Re San, the woman who took care of my brother and me, she said it was to be expected: how would I feel if some outside force came and occupied my country? Now I felt fear and guilt.

When my father was finally transferred back to the states, I watched in horror as the backlash against the civil rights movement unfolded on TV. I ached with anguish when I saw the crisis around black students trying to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. My father, who had once wanted to be a journalist, tried to explain what was happening, given my confusing context of the newly integrated military.

Ruby BridgesBut when I saw news reports in 1960 about little 6-year-old Ruby Bridges escorted to school by federal marshals, I identified in the deepest recesses of my being: I knew she must be scared to death and I wondered if she was asking herself, "Why do they hate me so much?"

It was something I wondered if young Anne Frank asked, too, after reading her diary about how her Jewish family escaped from the Nazis for a while during the Holocaust. What struck me then and haunts me still is how, amidst all the mindless, banal cruelty, she could still believe in the inner "goodness" of people.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech brought it all home: we must stand up for what is right - for justice and equality - but we must also try to find that "goodness" in ourselves and others to allow for grace, healing and hope for a better future for us all.

16th street church bombingIt's not easy. About two months before King's speech - civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot dead in his driveway and about two weeks after King's speech, on Sept. 15m, 1963, four little girls were murdered in a Ku Klux Klan bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four little girls in the church basement, getting ready for to pray and listen to a sermon entitled "The Love That Forgives." The sermon never took place because of the bombing.

Two months later, JFK was assassinated; the following year, three civil rights workers were murdered - one black, two white, in Mississippi; the year after that, in 1965, Malcolm X - who had just grasped that blond-haired, blue eyed Muslims participated in the Hajj too - was murdered; and on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, followed two months later by the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

Why did "they" hate these men so much?

And yet - while we remember the hate as if it occurred to us personally - we also aspire to live the hope, the dream where love does forgive and a common bond can be forged out of mutual respect and dignity. That was our Age of Aquarius, our counter-cultural revolution that espoused making love, not war.

rustinspeaksdc1963And for articulating and walking that dream, we will continue to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Bayard Rustin, and all who follow in their footsteps. And to them all, we say, thank you.

Postscript: I ran into one of those Japanese protesters in the mid-70s when he was a correspondent for the Japanese Tokyo Broadcasting System and I was an associate producer at CBS News. We laughed about the small world and drank together at a Japanese piano bar after work - until he got re-assigned and I got clean and sober in 1980.