Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wages of Straightness

Comments from Harry Jackson (which I first saw mentioned by JMG) caught my attention the other day. Jackson, a diva religious zealot, is looking to build his reputation as an African-American leader by disparaging gays and lesbians. So far, he has received a great deal of attention due to his outspoken opposition to hate-crimes legislation currently pending in Congress.

It is already a federal crime to violently assault an individual based on race, religion, color or national origin (all of these laws require, though, that the victim be engaged in a federally monitored activity when the attack occurred (such as voting or pursuing interstate commerce)). The new measure, which passed in the House of Representatives, expands those existing federal laws by adding sexual orientation and gender. Jackson opposes the measure because he believes that it will threaten radical Christians’ ability to harass gays (which it doesn’t – the measure is about violence, not speech).

Jackson has been explicit about his disdain for gays and lesbians. In particular, he feels gays and lesbians should not be welcomed in African-American churches. Using the old double-speak of “loving the sinner, hating the sin,” Jackson stops just short of calling for a witch-hunt within black churches. He argues that African-American churches have traditionally followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” about gay and lesbian Christians. “In my view,” Jackson writes, “the ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ approach to this problem is the height of hypocrisy . . . The Church, on the other hand, should be a place of conviction and truth. The Bible is clear in its statements against gay sexual activity.” Like so many religious zealots, Jackson imagines that the nation needs to regress to the times of the Old Testament. If people would go Biblical with their sex lives, he promises “there would be fewer out-of-wedlock births as well as fewer practicing gays in the black church.” Hey, what doesn't say "Christian love" like driving people out of the Church?

If Jackson is really concerned about decreasing the number of out-of-wedlock births, shouldn't he be encouraging more homo sex? Homo sex is the best and most reliable form of birth control (aside from masturbation).

From my vantage point, if there were fewer practicing gays in the black church, then they would have more time to practice being gay. Let’s be honest, you are never going to learn how to give a great blow job sitting in church.

Too much? Hey, Center of Gravitas isn’t a blog for kids. Go somewhere else for coloring books and lollipops.

While I think Jackson a bit looney, I really don’t care that he preaches such dribble. If that is his religious belief, so be it. Perhaps he and Jerry Falwell can swap stories when Jackson’s time for hell arrives.

What does bother me, though, is the way that Jackson and similar conservative minority figures help undermine civil rights in this nation even as they claim to be the inheritors of the movement. News media love the idea of presenting civil rights as if it is a limited commodity. They know it makes a compelling story if one oppressed group wrestles with another. In the meantime, the injustice that both groups suffer is sidelined. Giving disproportionate attention to somebody like Jackson also perpetuates the notion that gays and African Americans don’t have common goals or work cooperatively (either historically or in the present). Gays are presented as defacto “white” and African Americans as defacto “straight.”

Jackson likes to point out that Black churches historically served as places where African Americans organized and fought for civil rights. Truthfully, religious imagery was often critically important to many (but not all (more in a moment)) of the campaigns in the twentieth century. Of course, Jackson has decided to ignore Coretta Scott King or the recently deceased Yolanda King, who both advocated for gay rights as part of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy.

Likewise, Jackson conveniently ignores that religious imagery was also critically important to the opponents of desegregation as well. Southern whites used their own churches and vision of “Biblical” morality to justify the inhuman treatment of their fellow citizens based on race.

Indeed, even some conservative African-American religious leaders used their positions to advocate against Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil-rights leaders at mid-century. According to some sources, for instance, Rev. John Wesley Rice, Jr. (father of the current Secretary of State) either ignored or, much worse, disdained the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Rice, according to one Birmingham resident, called preacher and civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth and his congregation "uneducated, misguided Negroes.” This explains a lot about ol' Condi.

Religion can be tricky like that. Both sides on the civil rights moment believed they were right – both claimed moral authority – and both found their answers in the same sacred texts. Why, one could almost question their validity in deciding civil matters.

Some, however, did not find religion important to their sense of social justice at all. Jackson would probably be loathe to acknowledge the role of African Americans who were gay and/or not religious. Perhaps the most prominent example is Bayard Rustin, a gay African American leader. For all of his adult life, Rustin worked tirelessly as a civil-rights advocate for African Americans as well as queer folk. During his early life, Rustin was a committed socialist. He participated in the first “freedom rides” that challenged segregation on transregional buses. For his trouble, North Carolina rewarded Rustin with thirty days on a chain gang.

In 1963, Rustin was the principle organizer of the famous March on Washington where King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Neither the alleged handicaps of being non-religious or non-straight kept Rustin from making a difference for this nation's pursuit of social equality. I am also going to go out on a limb and suggest that all that practicing Rustin did at being a homo didn’t radically impair the African-American community. And, let me tell you, he practiced a lot.

Near the end of his life in 1987, Rustin stated, “"The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated." While I might not fully agree with that assessment (race still seems a darn easy way for people to be denied their rights in this and other nations), one could hardly refute Rustin’s credentials in making it.

We should interrogate claims that those who are religious have the exclusive ability to decide moral issues. This should especially be the case when such religious claims are accompanied by attempts to curtail the rights of entire groups of people.

Perhaps Jackson could learn something from another major African-American figure in U.S. history: W. E. B. DuBois. At the turn of the twentieth century, DuBois became one of the most well-known African-American intellectuals in the nation. In particular, he often wrote about social injustice in this nation's history.

DuBois wisely recognized that poor whites faced harsh conditions in the U.S. and had many legitimate grievances with the status quo. Yet, he argued, poor whites did not revolt because they received a “public and psychological” wage of imagined racial superiority. In other words, DuBois suggested that poor whites were given the illusion of better social standing against an oppressed African-American population rather than improved economic conditions. When monetary wages fell short, they could at least claim to have the nonmonterary compensation of social superiority over African Americans. Modern-day historian David Roedirger would use this idea to discuss the “wages of whiteness.”

In much the same way, conservatives like Jackson offer the “wages of straightness.” Rather than addressing unfair racial, economic, and social structures in the U.S. that affect the African-American community, Jackson suggests that real satisfaction can be taken in not being one of those sinful homos. As long as gays are disempowered, he reasons, African-American heteros are empowered.

We saw this same notion used triumphantly in the 2004 election. Bushie and crew (especially Karl Rove) understood the wages of straightness. Pollsters and social scientists scratched their heads at why so many poor whites and a few Latinos and African Americans voted Republican when the party was clearly against their personal economic interests. One of the answers centered on “gay marriage.” By placing anti-gay measures on the ballot, conservatives promised heteros a nonmonetary wage instead of actual economic security. Claiming that their relationships/marriages were “special” and needed “protection” gave those who voted against gays a sense of purpose (if not also a sense of moral and religious duty). Much like the wages of whiteness, however, it did little to improve their actual daily lives (With Haliburton, tax cuts for the wealthy, soaring gas prices, and a decrease in social services all thanks to the Bush administration, it probably made most straight people’s daily lives worse. Thank God, though, that Tim and Frank can’t be legally acknowledged as a couple!).

Figures like Jackson remind us why coalition building and a unified sense of social justice is critical to continuing the fight for civil and human rights. Though imperfect, many of the legendary social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had a language of solidarity across race, gender, and sexuality (even if they fell short in practice). The Black Panthers, for instance, aligned with the Gay Liberation Front out of a sense of shared commitment to social justice.

Today, though, I would suggest that Jackson has not faced significant challenge from the GLBT community because the existing queer organizations in this country no longer consider issues of race or racism as a core part of their agenda. Groups like HRC and others operate with a distinctly white, middle-class agenda and have proved unable to engage or understand the needs of queers of color (much less the larger hetero communities). When asked to explain why African Americans should support the hate-crime protection legislation for queer folk, HRC comes up blank.

Understanding and fighting all forms of social injustice must become part of our daily lives if we want to counter conservative ideologies. The reality is that the queer community includes people across racial and class lines. Supporting and defending the African American community is supporting and defending the queer community and vice versa.


Daniel said...

One of friends on EbonyFriends.com asked me to read this article and he siad it is very meaningful. yes, after reading it. I found it is so. especially the last pagragh leaves the deep impression.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear.

Anonymous said...

I like the "wages of straightness" idea. You're right on the money. I wonder how applicable the concept is to some of our fellow queers. I think probably quite a bit. I see it in some of our marriage conversations.

I'm all for coalition building, but it seems to me the queers aren't even on the same page as a community. We have no sense of ourselves to build coalitions with.

Anonymous said...

The next time the HRC comes up blank (as they so often do - I prefer the NGLTF), all they need to do is quote this post. Well done, GayProf.

Bigg said...

If your blog is this good I can only imagine what your classes must be like... You make some excellent points.

pacalaga said...

Bigg said what I was thinking - points about Jackson aside, I would have had much more fun in history class (ANY history class) if you'd been the one who was teaching it. Damn, GayProf, do you give online lectures? (I mean video-style, not blog-style. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Loved the post -- but just a minor correction on Bayard Rustin. He was raised a Quaker and came to activism (specifically, pacifism and antiwar activism -- he went to prison rather than fight in WWII) through the church. Not the same church as Jackson et al, and his gayness was not graciously accepted by the Quakers then, either, but it would be misleading to term him nonreligious.

Doug said...

Excellent post! I learn so much reading your blog.

Do you write a column for money anywhere? If not, why not? You're extremely insightful and your topics are, well, topical.

Anonymous said...

I'll just join the chorus and add that what you wrote stirred a chord for me. My father and I frequently disagreed on the methods favored by W.E.B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington.
HRC seems to be concerned with the wages of whiteness AND straightness.It's entirely possible to be closeted and support the HRC.Racism in the gay community is our ugly little secret.

tornwordo said...

Very nicely done. I once mentioned to a friend that African Americans and homos should have a natural affinity for each other, given their challenges in society. He looked at me and said, "What? No. We have it way worse than you do. You can't compare apples and oranges."

I chewed on that for a bit.

Roger Owen Green said...

I hope you know that I think that when some of us are oppressed, all of us are oppressed; it oughn't to be a zero-sum game. I'd heard of this Harry Jackson only fairly recently, but I've always been particularly annoyed with black bigots such as him, on the (obviously false) assumption that, from their own experience, they ought to know better.

Steven said...

Amen, Sister! Love the thought-provoking discussion and the responses it generates.

GayProf said...

Daniel: Glad to have you stop by my little bloggy.

Vila H.: Hail! I keep meaning to add a link to your blog...

Jason: I agree that a certain form of the "wages of straightness" can be seen in the pursuit of gay marriage. It seems to me that we are trading a small legal victory (when we can even accomplish that) for a much larger package of civil rights. Also, the marriage issue enforces a certain conformity on all relationships (queer or otherwise).

Huntington: HRC needs a massive shake up, IMHO

Bigg & Pacalaga: It's true about teaching: I am the best. Now if only those Texan freshmen thought so...

Anon: Thanks for the addition.

Doug: Alas, I don't get paid for writing. I am hoping, though, to replace Rosie on The View.

Brian: I agree that the HRC does support the status quo more than resist it. The queer community over the past few years has not been particularly self reflective. Perhaps that is changing...

Torn: Hierarchies of suffering (e.g. my pain is worse than yours) are not all that useful, in my mind.

ROG: I think there is still a tendency to presume a monolithic and unified African-American community. Rather than acknowledging that diversity, the media is happy to turn to people like Jackson as a universal voice.

Steven: It's just the first step in my building of a massive media empire...

Antonio said...

It frustrates me that with all this news about HIV ravaging the black community, not one leader ever brings up the stigma attached to homosexuality in the community. If a black man could be openly gay and not face ostracism from his community, there could be more discussion about the contraception and gay black youth might be more likely to protect himself.

This talk about being "biblical" about your sex life is nice and all, but if my hometown is any indication, the obvious reality is hardly anyone practices that. Teenage pregnancy and children out of wedlock is rampant, despite the fact almost everyone goes to church.

Population One said...

Great post. One of gay history's best kept secrets, it's nice to see Rustin has not been forgotten.

ZaPaper said...

Hi GayProf. I really enjoyed this post. Somehow you are a rarity among bloggers and can get away with writing a really long post that still manages to be engaging all the way through. This is really important stuff. I sure wish there were some way of convincing people who don't already agree...