Gay Is the New Black?

In the wake of California’s passage of Proposition 8, protests are popping up around the country -- and so are comparisons between gays’ and African-Americans’ fights for equality. Is gay the new black? Michael Joseph Gross examines two struggles for civil rights. Plus: Photos from Wednesday night's rally in New York City.

BY Michael Joseph Gross

November 16 2008 12:00 AM ET

 NY Prop 8 Rally 03 X390 (Jon Barrett) | Advocate.com

We gave into
another post-election temptation too. Many drew a simple
parallel between our struggle and the black civil rights
movement. Signs at protests said, “I have a
dream too,” “Welcome to Selma,” and
“Gay is the new black.”

There’s
something to this, but it’s dangerous territory, and
we have to be careful not to lose our bearings here.
Gay is the new black in only one meaningful way. At
present we are the most socially acceptable targets
for the kind of casual hatred that American society once
approved for habitual use against black people. Gay is
the dark pit where our society lets people throw their
fears about what’s wrong with the world. (Many
people, needless to say, still direct this kind of hatred
toward black people too. But it’s more commonly
OK to caricature and demean us in politics and the
media in ways from which blacks are now largely
exempt.) The comparison becomes useful, though, in forcing
us to consider the differences between our civil
rights struggle and theirs.

Except in a few
statistically insignificant cases (the gay kid who
happens to be the child of gay parents), being gay begins
with recognizing your difference from the people with
whom you have your earliest, most intimate
relationships. As such, it’s an essentially
isolating experience and therefore breeds in many gay people
certain qualities -- such as independence and
perfectionism -- that can undermine our ability to
cooperate and compromise with others. Though some of us
were lucky enough to find role models, mentors, or gay
friends early in life, we weren’t born into the
kind of beloved community that the African-American
church aspires to be. Today, the church is still the
strongest black American institution, and though it is far
from a perfect place, for its members it’s a
cradle of love and shelter from oppression.

Our oppression,
by and large, is nowhere near as extreme as blacks’,
and we insult them when we make facile comparisons
between our plights. Gay people have more resources
than blacks had in the 1960s. We are embedded in the
power structures of every institution of this society. While
it is illegal in this country to fire an
African-American without cause and in most places
it’s still legal to fire a gay person for being gay,
we are more likely to have informal means of recourse
than black people have. Almost all gay people have the
choice of passing. Very few black people have that
option. Of course, we shouldn’t have to make that
choice, and our civil rights struggle is about making
sure that we don’t have to.

On a deeper
level, though, the gay civil rights struggle is about
preventing discrimination based on our proclivity to love,
as distinct from the messier foundation of racial
discrimination, which primarily has to do with
protecting white privilege and wealth. No one would deny
that fear of mixed marriages significantly inhibited
the progress of the black civil rights movement.
(Blacks won employment and voting rights a full three
years before the Supreme Court finally struck down
miscegenation laws in 1967.) But love and sex were
not, as is the case with gay civil rights,
unambiguously the heart of the matter. This is the reason
our progress has been slow: Love cannot be understood
in the abstract. You cannot understand it until it
touches you or you find your way into its orbit.

We have to stop
rage from getting the best of us right now, and keep love
at the fore of everything we do and say in this battle. We
are close to winning everything we want. We are so
close that we do not have time to rehash the
Malcolm/Martin struggle between anger and peace, force and
nonviolence. Let’s call the Mormons out on the
campaign of lies they funded, but let’s find a
way of doing it that steers clear of hatred. Enough
with the “Fuck Mormons” signs. Some Mormons
are gay, not all Mormons voted against us, and a few
of them publicly put themselves on the line for us.

We are taking to
the streets now -- while writing this, I received an
e-mail from a friend pointing me to an online organizing of
protests on November 15 in all 50 states -- and we are
angry, probably not least at ourselves for our own
complacency and cowardice, for not working as hard as
we could, for not giving as much as we could, and for
letting so much slip from our grasp. Let’s find
a way of channeling the passion of this flash point
and harnessing this energy for the long haul so we can do
the hard work of claiming the full rights and
realizing the full lives that we know we can have.

When you use
faggots to start a fire, you don’t just dump a bunch
of twigs on a few logs and hope something catches. You
choose your tinder carefully, you bundle it
vigilantly, you place it carefully -- then, and only
then, you set the fire.

On Election Day
the No on 8 campaign prepared statements for its website
to post in the event of a victory or of a loss. One of the
people in charge of this task left the office that
night with her eyes full of tears. “I am so
angry,” she explained, “that they dragged us
into this shit. And they shouldn’t have. We
already won, and still, they are making us fight for
what we already won.” She pulled herself together.
“But we’re going to win. We have to win.
I am 23 years old,” she said, “and this
is my civil rights battle.”

For a moment I
was overcome with admiration for this woman’s
passion, and at the same time, with a shiver of
thought that, if it were made of words, would consist
of something like the phrase You are going to die. It
was a keen intimation of mortality, of the sense in which
our lives, even in the moments of our most focused and
profound presence, are merely fragments of the endless
story of the human struggle for dignity. A friend in
Los Angeles said he saw a sign at one of the protests
saying, “Rosa sat so Martin could march so
Barack could run.” For us, as for the
African-Americans who lived through the ’60s, many
apparent failures will, in retrospect, clearly be
progress. We lost a lot on this Election Day, but we
gained a lot too. Not least was a president who has shown
almost every sign of goodwill we could wish for and a
Congress eager to follow his leadership where we are
concerned.

A lot of us have
been fighting for as long as we can remember, trying to
keep the world from seeing us as faggots. Maybe it’s
time to give up that fight and choose another one
instead. Go ahead and be a faggot, in a way that shows
the world that a faggot is a person. Start a fire, but let
your fire be a beacon. Let your fire burn away your hate,
and it will burn away the hate of your enemies. Let
your fire be the light that shows your love. If you do
that -- if we do that -- we will win the world, and
soon. 

NY Prop 8 Rally 04 X390 (Jon Barrett) | Advocate.com

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