Doctor King and Gay Rights 27-01-2012

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I came across this article by John Blake on CNN which posed the question: what did Dr. King think about gay people and about homosexuality in general? It is a question that has divided many, including those in the King family. As the article details, Dr. King's late widow, Coretta Scott King, firmly believed that her husband would encourage every one to "make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people" while his daughter, Reverend Bernice King, believes the opposite, stating that her father "did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage." Scholars and historians are no closer to an agreement. Many have concluded that his vision for equality for all of Mankind, his apparent lack of communication (public or private) condemning homosexuality and his non-literal interpretation of the Bible are emblematic of a man who would support equal rights for members of the LGBT community. Others have reasoned the opposite, with evidence ranging from his Christian theology to the fact that he never politicized gay rights to the words he wrote to a young gay man in a 1958 Ebony magazine advice column (his only public comments on homosexuality):

"I am a boy," an anonymous writer told King. "But I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don't want my parents to know about me. What can I do?"

In calm, pastoral tones, King told the boy that his problem wasn't uncommon, but required "careful attention."

"The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired," King wrote. "You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it."

Emphasis mine; I find it curious, to say the least.

The pattern that I seem to observe in this debate is that Dr. King's words and actions are largely being used to further entrench one against one's opposition, that his legacy and his name are being held up by both sides in an attempt at legitimatization. That is to say, persons who have already decided about their stance, whether it is in favor of or against equality for homosexuals, are utilizing the powerful, reverent image of Dr. King to further support their side against an opposition whom they swear the doctor would never support. It is an effective, and easy, strategy, but I feel that it misses a larger point:

We should not be concerned with what Dr. King the person would think of a given issue; rather, we should be concerned with what Dr. King's message has to say about the issue, with what the implications of applying his message might be.

So what precisely is Dr. King's message, and how does it relate to gay rights? I think that it is futile to boil down a message so ambitious (just as much today as it was when Dr. King delivered it), so expansive and meaningful. And more so, Dr. King's message is more than just a directive or a statement of ideology: it encompasses a set of ideals and of beliefs, establishing and refining a philosophy of compassion, respect and love. It is ultimately humanitarian, profoundly philanthropic. To boil such an important ideal down to a soundbite-worthy statement might in fact be possible, but it would be disrespectful to the message itself, lacking respect for its very essence.

But we can attempt to recognize some themes and essential components by analyzing the message as she was delivered, through Dr. King's emotionally charged and awe-inspiring speeches. It is a reoccurring theme within his words and ideas that equality, of freedom, of justice and of virtue, extend to all of Mankind.

Take a look at his sermon at Detroit's Second Baptist Church on February 28, 1954:

That's what we need in the world today--people who will stand for right and goodness. It's not enough to know the intricacies of zoology and biology, but we must know the intricacies of law. It is not enough to know that two and two makes four, but we've got to know somehow that it's right to be honest and just with our brothers. It's not enough to know all about our philosophical and mathematical disciplines, but we've got to know the simple disciplines of being honest and loving and just with all humanity.

Or listen as Dr. King makes an impassioned plea against an unjust war in Vietnam on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City:

Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing -- embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.

But perhaps most critically, look no further than the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, when Dr. King told us of his dream:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." ...

And when this happens, when we allow 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!

I could quite easily continue with further examples of Dr. King espousing love for all of his brothers and sisters and imploring us to do the same. But those familiar with any modicum of his life's work should already be aware of this idea: that all Men are created equal, that all Men have the same right to pursue life, liberty and happiness and that all Men have equal standing in the eyes of the law, of morality and of society.

Now, it is entirely true that his messages never explicitly mentioned sexual orientation as a trait which is not to be used for discriminatory purposes, just as it is entirely true that his messages never condemned homosexuals in any way. This vagueness, this open-ended mystery that continues to fascinate, fuels further debate on the topic. The fact that Dr. King "never publicly welcomed gays at the front gate of his beloved community" leaves open a door with which all sides of the dialogue can attempt to claim him as their own.

But regardless of the truth of how Dr. King personally felt towards homosexuality and the ongoing struggle for Gay rights, his message has not changed. Quite frankly, his personal thoughts should not matter very much. He was an extraordinary man whose words carry enormous, unprecedented weight, but still just a man. He was and is a hero to uncountable many men and women (myself wholeheartedly included), but still just a person. We do not celebrate a national holiday in his name simply because of who he was, but rather because of what he gave to us: an ideal to strive toward.

That ideal was codified and archived in the form of a message, of inspiration and of guidance, of passion and of love. This ideal, of a society where all men and women have equal standing and ultimate freedom, lives on and grows in spite of Dr. King's absence from this Earth. It is not tied to his person, or even his legacy. Yes, much of what we do for the sake of freedom and equality is done in his name, but this is honorary. Our continued celebration of Dr. King is a celebration of what he showed we are capable of, and what we continue to fight to achieve. And every person who continues to live without freedom and equality is a reminder that we have not achieved this ideal, we have not heeded the call, we have not heard the message quite well enough.

So instead of asking ourselves, "What would Dr. King think of homosexuality?" we should examine his message and wonder how homosexuality fits into the struggle for pervasive and total equality of all Mankind. And when we do examine this ideal and when we do recall this message, we find that it is a perfect fit, for the simple and pure reason that homosexuality does not in any way, shape or form denigrate one's humanity, which is the sole qualification for equality in the message.

But of course every thing is relative. Perhaps you choose not to recognize Dr. King's message, perhaps you have decided that you are not concerned with the ideal of complete equality. Perhaps you personally feel that homosexuals are not entitled to the freedoms that are inalienable to the rest of society, that the fight for Gay rights is an invalid one. Though I personally find that abhorrent, all I can say is: fine. But, please, do not hold up the banner of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior as a show of the legitimacy of your own mindset. Because regardless of whether or not you are right about his personal opinion, you have not escaped the unending message of Dr. King, the message of complete equality.

To me, that is what is truly meaningful.