01/20/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What the Queer Rights Movement Should Learn From Martin Luther King Jr.


I stole this headline from an article that appeared on this morning, but I think it's justified, seeing as the piece, written by Brandon Ambrosino, was inspired by me.

In it Ambrosino writes:

I was recently in a discussion with a gay activist who was angry at my insistence that we treat our opposition with compassion. How, he wondered, could I expect our community to be kind to those who continue to fight against us? Quoting Martin Luther King, I told him that only love can drive out the hatred of our opponents, to which he responded, "Sometimes I think we can love too much."

I did say that, about a month ago, when Ambrosino and I had a not-so-friendly discussion on HuffPost Live about whether or not you can oppose gay marriage and still not be anti-gay or homophobic. I said you can't be (and you can read more of my thoughts about the topic here), and Ambrosino said you can.

Apparently that chat had a lasting impression on him, and his piece today attempts to take me to task by using the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., which is a shrewd move. If a gay man dedicating his writing career to fighting against the queer movement is titillating to the editors of mainstream sites like, imagine how exciting it must be to have him pitch a piece where he does it with the help of King!

In brief, Ambrosino wants queers like me who believe that we shouldn't apologize for or excuse the homophobia or transphobia of our fellow countrymen and women, even if they're our parents or our friends (which is a totally radical, scary notion, right?), should follow King's lead and "condemn the evil without condemning the evildoer."

He claims we "demand to be taken seriously, even as we dismiss our opponents' request that we listen to them."

But here's the thing: I have listened to our opponents, and I've heard all the awful things they've said about us, including that we're sinful and have murder in our hearts, and that we're dangerous to children. I've listened to this kind of filth my entire life. And while I agree with Ambrosino in the vaguest of ways -- I do think that many people who are coming to grips with their homophobia and are trying to understand queers should be approached with love and kindness and respect -- those who spew hate need to be addressed and quickly countered.

Ambrosino briefly acknowledges King's anger, claiming that "with the righteous indignation of a prophet, he demanded that his society grant him the dignity that God had guaranteed him," but then he proceeds to litter the rest of his piece with cherry-picked quotations from King about loving and learning from our opposition.

Here are a few of his favorites:

  • "see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves..."
  • "learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition..."
  • "[the white man] needs the love of the Negro ... to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears..."

However, for as much as King spoke about nonviolence and love, he never excused or apologized for the bigotry of the men and women he was fighting against. What's more, King called out those within and adjacent to his own movement who refused to take an active stand against injustice and detailed how dangerous their inaction was to their success:

  • "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
  • "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice.."
  • "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
  • "Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."

I understand that my approach to queer activism is perhaps more unapologetic than others, but I truly believe that for us to ever achieve anything resembling liberation (and I say "liberation" rather than "equality" because I have a grander vision for us -- all of us -- than just being made equal but still living in a broken society), we have to fight. That means speaking out when we see homophobia and transphobia -- especially when it comes from our fellow queers. It's not fun, and it doesn't come without consequences, but it's absolutely crucial.

If you look at what we've gained in the last 50 years, so much of it was achieved because a small group of queer people and their allies said, "Enough." Stonewall, ACT UP, chaining ourselves to the gates of the White House to protest "don't ask, don't tell," even Edie Windsor's case before the Supreme Court -- we have not come this far by staying silent.

Ambrosino ends his piece like this:

Perhaps rather than think of love as merely the right choice to make, we should think of it a bit differently: as the liberating choice to make. Perhaps, following in the footsteps of one of history's greatest activists, we should choose to side with love since hate is, in his opinion, too great a burden to bear.

He's absolutely right. Hate is too great a burden to bear, which is why we shouldn't ever allow for it. And we shouldn't confuse speaking out against hate with hate. They are not the same thing.

He's also right about loving being a liberating choice to make. But love is not a timid, useless thing that sits sighing and dimly glowing in the dusty bottom drawer of our chests, waiting to do its magic should someone ever happen upon it. And when I told Ambrosino, "Sometimes I think we can love too much," I was talking about that kind of dormant "love."

In reality, love is action. Love is terrifying. And when we speak out, when we open up our mouths and say, "No more. I am not a sin. I am not a mistake. I will love who I love, I will fuck who I fuck, and you can no longer tell me that I am disordered or corrupt or evil because of it," we are engaged in that love. It's the most liberating kind of love -- a love for ourselves and each other based on radical respect for who we are, and for the lives and work of those who fought before us so that we might be able to be where we are and have what we have today -- and it allows us to get up each day and begin again despite the horrors we've faced the days and months and years and decades before.

Martin Luther King Jr. was many things to many people. His vision was so terrifying that the FBI tried to blackmail him into killing himself, and when that didn't happen, he was murdered. Let's learn from his message of confrontation -- yes, with a fierce, unbending love -- and let's keep his memory alive by raging against the oppressions that he raged against. But let's not pretend that we're doing anyone any good by tossing around the word "love" without action. We owe love, King, ourselves and each other more than that.