06/13/2012 06:52 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Stop the Violence: LGBT Rights Under Assault in Eastern Europe and the Balkins

The following is an abridged version of the keynote address delivered at the Stop the Violence: LGBT Rights Are Human Rights conference in Tirana, Albania, on June 14, 2012. The emphasis at the conference is on Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and it is the first U.S.-government-sponsored LGBT-rights conference ever held on foreign soil, presented under the official auspices of both the U.S. State Department and the Department of Justice.

"If an animal has to be sacrificed when a new bridge is built, what will it take to build a new world?" asked the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare in his novel Chronicle in Stone, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. The novel is set in Kadare's own hometown, Gjirokaster, and concerns the monumental changes that occur to the town, his country, and the world itself between 1939 and World War II, even though the story is seen through the innocent yet knowing eyes of a young local boy. All monumental change begins locally. And often it is first seen, even envisioned, through the innocent yet knowing eyes of the young.

When reading Chronicle in Stone I thought of my own childhood in the American South in the 1960s in the state of Mississippi and what I was seeing all around me as the civil-rights struggle of African Americans was violently being resisted. As I look out at so many young people in the audience today who have come to Tirana from all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans for this conference on LGBT rights, I am reminded of those brave young people half a century ago who came to Mississippi during Freedom Summer, at great risk to themselves, in order to organize and demonstrate and strategize not only for the advancement of the rights of African Americans but, in so doing, the advancement of society as a whole.

Freedom Summer was a campaign in the United States launched in June 1964 in an attempt to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had historically excluded most blacks from voting. Well over 1,000 out-of-state volunteers participated in Freedom Summer, alongside thousands of black Mississippians. Two one-week orientation sessions for the volunteers were held at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. The first one started on June 14 of that year. Maybe that's a good omen for this Stop the Violence: LGBT Rights Are Human Rights conference here in Tirana, Albania, since our own sessions are officially starting today, June 14, as well.

Many of Mississippi's white residents back then, like so many of the residents of Eastern Europe and the Balkans now, deeply resented any attempt by the young activists to change their society. Locals routinely tried to intimidate them. Newspapers called them "unshaven and unwashed trash." Their presence in local black communities sparked drive-by shootings aimed at them and Molotov cocktails thrown their way. An incessant institutional harassment took many forms. Nothing seemed out of bounds. State and local governments and police departments used everything from murder to arrests to beatings to arson to spying illegally on its law-abiding citizens to firing them from their jobs to evicting them from their homes, all in order to instill fear in the activist community and to prevent African Americans from achieving social equality.

I thought of all that violent and institutional opposition to social change when about 20 gay and lesbian activists organized by two groups, Pro LGBT and Alliance Against Discrimination, cycled here in Tirana last month, holding a daring gay-rights demonstration in this country, which aspires to join the European Union but where conservative values are still deeply entrenched. It was erroneously reported in the Albanian press that a larger gay-pride parade was planned, but the deputy defense minister and the leader of the royalist party, Ekrem Spahiu, was quick to condemn the nonexistent larger parade. "My only commentary on this gay parade is that they should be beaten with truncheons," he declared. Other lawmakers referred to the activists as "sick."

Accompanied by police, the cyclists had barely begun their rain-soaked protest when hooded youths threw homemade tube bombs at them. The missiles banged and sent thick smoke into the air, but the demonstrators were unhurt and cycled on. Indeed, that is what we are doing today in Tirana, as well. We are all, in our own way, taking our courageous cue from those brave cyclists, and we are all cycling on. We will not be stopped. We are not afraid. Deputy Defense Minister Spahiu, look at this conference. Look at this new generation, this conference, these brave young people -- we are here as the answer to your threat.

"We made it!" Kristi Pinderi of Pro LGBT told Reuters as he cycled that rainy day last month onto Tirana's main boulevard. Well, Kristi, you have made it further than Tirana's main boulevard. Today you have made it into the first U.S.-State-Department-sponsored LGBT-rights conference on foreign soil.

In Serbia gay-pride parades in 2001 and 2010 were met with extreme violence. In 2004 the parade was cancelled by the organizers because of fear of such violence. Parades in 2009 and 2011 were banned outright by the authorities.

But gay-rights activists in Belgrade are not backing down under threats of death and violence. This year the Serbian Queeria Center has announced that Belgrade Pride 2012 will be held from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7. For the first time Belgrade Pride will be structured in the form of an eight-day festival. The Pride Parade itself will be held on Oct 6. The slogan for this year's Belgrade Pride is "Love, Faith, Hope."

So many of us get involved in political struggles of all kinds because of our anger at injustice. Anger is often our fuel. But I propose to you today that it is a kind of fossil fuel. It cannot be sustained. Belgrade Pride is correct in its slogan this year. Faith. Love. Hope. Those are the deeper, truer things that sustain us, just as they sustained those young people so long ago during Freedom Summer in Mississippi Those are our truest forms of political fuel. Our faith in ourselves as fully human and the rightness of our cause. The love we all have for each other as brothers and sisters in the struggle. And the hope that the we can make the world a better place for ourselves and for others in the future.

Hope is so often the provenance of the young. But I can tell you that even as a 56-year-old man who came of age during the civil-rights struggles in the American South in the 1960s, it is the very bedrock of my existence. It is the sense of hope I first witnessed as a little sissy boy back in Mississippi, when the black people of my state would not stay beaten down, oppressed, defeated. Even in the darkest days of the civil-rights movement -- which coincided with the darkest days of my childhood, since both my parents died within one year of each other, in 1963 and 1964 -- I looked into the dignified, worthy faces of the black men and women of Mississippi and saw the face of human hope.

There are some African Americans who are offended by the equating of the LGBT struggle for civil rights with the African-American one. They are each distinct struggles. I agree with that. We certainly have no historical context for slavery in our collective history as LGBT people. But their struggle for civil rights was and is a uniquely American one in many ways. The LGBT civil-rights struggle is a global one, as we are asserting here today.

Yet because of my background as a little gay sissy boy growing up in Mississippi, I do tend to see the similarities more than I see the differences between the civil-rights struggles of African Americans and LGBT people. One of Dr. Martin Luther King's closest advisers and a hero of the African-American civil-rights struggle was Bayard Rustin, who was a gay man. As both a gay man and a black man, he could also see the similarities in his struggle to gain political dignity for both of those identities.

"Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change," said Rustin in 1986, a year before he died. "Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new 'niggers' are gays. No person who hopes to get politically elected, even in the deep south, would dare openly and publicly argue that blacks should not have the right to public accommodations. Nobody would dare to say any number of things about blacks that they are perfectly prepared to say about gay people. Indeed, if you want to know whether they are true democrats, if you want to know whether they are human rights activists, the question to ask is, 'What about gay people?' Because that is now the litmus paper by which this democracy is to be judged. The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable people in mind: gay people."

Indeed, in one scene in Mississippi Sissy, I pinpoint the moment I realized that I, as a sissy boy, had more in common with my black maid than I did with any of my white classmates. It was the year my mother lay dying of cancer in the hospital, after my father had been killed in an automobile accident the year before. I was 8 years old. The night before, I had watched in confused astonishment as Sidney Poitier became the first African-American man ever to win the Oscar for Best Actor. It was also the morning I last said the N-word with any ease.

Here is a bit of that scene:

I no longer used the N-word after Matty May, our family's black maid, had set me straight on the morning after the Academy Awards show on which Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. I had walked into my new bedroom at my grandparents' house that Tuesday morning, where she was making my bed before I caught the bus for school. "How you doin'?" she asked.

"Did you watch the Oscars last night, Matty?" I had asked her that morning. "Can you believe a nigger won Best Actor?"

Matty May sat down on the bed. A long, slow sigh slid from her. "Oh, baby," she kept saying over and over and running her palm along the chenille spread. "Oh, baby." The look of sad resignation in her eyes was the same I had seen in my mother's eyes only the day before, in the hospital room where she lay dying. It was a look of utter fatigue, defeat. "I thought you was different, child. Lawd be, if they can get you t'sayin' such things, there ain't no hope. No hope." She started to cry. I sat down next to her and reached out and held her hand. I gently rubbed her calluses with my finger, amazed by their toughness and how very tender they made me feel. "No hope. No hope," she kept repeating.

"Nigger's a ugly word?" I quietly asked her, trying to understand this newest storm of tears in my presence.

"Child, it's d'ugliest. Jesus never say nigger in d'Bible. God made us colored folk in His own image, too, you know. So if we a nigger, God a nigger, too. You think about that. And you think about old Matty here cryin' here like this, if you ever think about sayin' that agin."

I looked up at her and asked her what I should call her, then, since my grandparents, careful never to curse around me, used the word several times a day within my earshot. She straightened her bent shoulders and roughly pulled me up my the collar of my shirt she had just ironed for me to wear to school. She always made sure to use a sweet tone when addressing me, but not in that moment. Her voice took on a hard edge, not lashing out at me exactly, but making me notice the angry dignity with which it was suddenly imbued. "I got a name, child. Call me by my right name -- Matty May. That's got a pretty sound to it. You don't need to use some ugly name when my mama give me two pretty ones. Sometimes when I'm shopping at Paul Chambers," she said, referring to the owner of the general store where many of the country folk in the area shopped for groceries, work clothes, and gasoline, "and I hear some white fool use that nasty word around me, I just say my name over and over in my head to drownt it out. Matty May, Matty May, Matty May. Now I got a new one I can use -- Poitier, Poitier, Poitier," she said, practically singing the name, her face aglow with pride. "Sounds almost as pretty as my own."

I helped her make up the rest of my bed that morning. "Matty May?" I asked. "When somebody calls me a sissy at school, can I say your name over and over in my head to make it go away?"

She teared up again. "Child, you can use old Matty's name all you want," she said, kissing me on top of my head. "Plenty of me to go around now that I got something as pretty as Sidney Poitier to pronounce inside myself."

I propose to us all today here at this conference that we in our own ways become the Sidney Poitiers and Matty Mays for others out there who need a way to find their own dignity and to pronounce it inside themselves as we find ways to pronounce it inside ourselves at this conference.

Keep the faith. Love one another. And let us together put some hope into the world, into our countries, into our smallest local towns, so that another young child out there somewhere -- whether in Gjirokaser, Albania, or even in Mississippi -- can see it, recognize it, and, for the first time, know what it is like to feel it.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. I have been humbled by it. It has been an honor. And it has put a bit of needed hope in my own life.