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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Inescapable Network of Mutuality'

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"My husband, Martin Luther King Jr., once said, 'We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny... an inescapable network of mutuality.... I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.' Therefore, I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people."
--Coretta Scott King's address to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference, Atlanta, Ga., 2000

At this time of year, as we commemorate and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded once again of his vibrant image of the "inescapable network of mutuality" that links humanity. Dr. King envisioned an inclusive model of social justice.

Though the concept of "social justice" has been defined a number of ways, I have constructed my definition as: "The concept that local, national, and global communities function when everyone has equal access to and equitable distribution of the rights, benefits, privileges, and resources, and where everyone can live freely, unencumbered by social constructions of hierarchical positions of domination and subordination based on social identities."

Yes, identities based on race and sexual and gender identities, for example, are very distinct, and the weight of oppression often falls on members of these groups differently. However, many argue that because "race" is an immutable biological trait that people are born with, certain protections must be provided to prevent the dominant group from persecuting minoritized "races." They also assert that same-sex and both-sex attractions and gender identities and expressions outside the binary are not factors that people are born with but rather "choose" later in life, and therefore, they do not deserve nor require "special rights" for their chosen so-called "lifestyles."

I see an underlying assumption to this argument: there are only limited rights to go around, and since there is such a scarcity of rights available, we must divide them among people on the basis of biology. This "scarcity" theory results in marginalized groups competing for what they see as the crumbs of a small and limited pie, rather than joining together to work for a larger and more equitable pie. This argument also fails in that it neither understands nor even acknowledges individuals' intersecting and multiple identities or multiple positionalities from which they experience the world.

In truth, all social identities are socially constructed. For example, looking over the historical emergence of the concept of "race," historians and race theorists remind us that this notion arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe, beginning in the 15th century of the Common Era (C.E.) and reaching its apex in the early 20th century C.E. Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called "race" than between "races," and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to "race." They assert, therefore, that "race" is discursively or socially constructed. "Race" is, furthermore, a historical, "scientific," cultural, and biological myth, an idea, and any socially conceived physical "racial" markers are fictional and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.

Researchers have conducted numerous studies, some still underway, to "discover" the true genesis of same-sex and both-sex attractions, as well as of transgender identities and expressions. They have spent literally millions of dollars in their attempts to unlock the answer to the perennial question: "What causes homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identities?" though we virtually never ask the question: "What causes heterosexuality and cisgender (gender-conforming) identities and expressions?" I actually would rather researchers investigate the question: "What causes heterosexism and cissexism (transgender oppression)?" for then we might discover cures for these forms of oppression!

Without getting caught in the "nature vs. nurture" debate, for the jury is still out (no pun intended) on this question, let us presume for the sake of argument that sexuality and gender identities and expressions are choices. If this is the case, then lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people should be accorded their rights and protections from discrimination as are those who choose their religious (or non-religious) affiliations and expressions. Religion is, in fact, a choice, as emphasized in a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that 44 percent of Americans change religious affiliation at least once during their lives. The First Amendment guarantees constitutional protections on the basis of religious affiliation and expression.

On the other hand, if sexuality and gender identities and expressions are genetically predetermined, LGBT people should be accorded rights and protections from discrimination as are minoritized racial groups.

In the final analysis, however, we must place these issues in the realm of human rights and human dignity, and not in fields of science. In her 2000 address to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference, Coretta Scott King emphasized this point:

I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.

Therefore, with the very real differences acknowledged, I also believe that the various forms of oppression (e.g., racism, ethnocentrism, religious oppression, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ageism and adultism, classism, ableism, and others) run parallel and at various points intersect. It is at those points of intersection where alliances and coalitions have good chances of forming to combat the many spokes in the wheel of oppression, for if we somehow dismantle one of the spokes while neglecting to concentrate on those remaining, the wheel of oppression will continue to trample over the lives of many.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to remind us of this fact: "[A]ll life is interrelated.... Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.... This is the interrelated structure of reality."