Three years ago today, on MLK Day, I visited a museum display of artifacts and items from King’s life at the Michigan Union. In the collection were photographs, letters, pins, medals, awards, certificates, clothing, and other personal possessions. I set a trajectory toward the letter section and commenced reading. They were primarily correspondences he had as minister with congregants. I do not remember the details or even the subject matter of any of the letters save one: a young boy wrote King and revealed he liked other boys– not girls, and sought King’s advise on what to do. King’s response: Pray to God to fix your condition and save you from wrong doing which would occur if you would act on such sinful feelings.
I was floored – disappointed and upset, but mainly confused. On the day that celebrates one of the most tremendous leaders and civil rights activists in history, I had learned that perhaps he was not as visionary as I had thought, perhaps not so supportive of everyone having civil rights. It felt to me that King’s passionate and fiery language, actions, and efforts that proved so vital and energizing both at the time and today for everyone, whose message is universal and applicable to all and whose dream is tangible and alive, possessed views that today are seen as outdated, backwards, and repressive. I am left wondering: is King’s homophobic perspective something we should discuss and be concerned about, something we should acknowledge and then move on in order to celebrate the good that he did, or something that we should just ignore and dismiss?
If we focus primarily on his perspective on gays, we miss the whole point of today. Today is about celebrating the good that he did for black rights, and black and white relations in the US. Today is about celebrating his vision of civil rights for all (except gays) as a model that we can continue to look to today. Amidst this celebrate and reflection, can we discover the correct balance between celebrating a tremendous leaders’ accomplishments and also acknowledging his faults? At the same time, however, it is important to realize that his views were not out of line with those at the time on gay rights and being gay in general.
Is it so important that a leader who helped so many be open to helping absolutely everyone? There is evidence suggesting that Gandhi was anti-Semitic. Does that mean we should view his accomplishments in India and for his people, and his views on peace and non-violence any differently? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Or, should we just consider them also in light of his negative views toward other people? Conversely, would dismissing and ignoring King’s views on homosexuality do an injustice to our LGBTQ community?
History and memory are tricky things. They are dynamic and flexible aspects of our existence. As history changes, so too does our memory of it. Today as gay rights is becoming more common and acknowledge and rightfully accepted, despite unfortunately many more hurdles that must be overcome, we look through our lens of the present to examine the footage of the past. The ultimate question is how much should we? How much is appropriate? And also, how little is inappropriate?
By: Naomi Scheinerman
(Photo by j l t under a Creative Commons license)