TIME Gay Rights

What the Gay Rights Movement Should Learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Donald Uhrbrock / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

In contrast to contemporary gay activists, King found a way to condemn evil without condemning the evildoer

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.”

Well, in the spirit of Dr. King, I disagree with my gay brother. I do, however, worry that many of our loudest gay activists agree with him. That is, even as they position themselves within the tradition that produced Dr. King, they seem to have lost sight of King’s true legacy of love.

The current landscape of queer politics is growing increasingly hostile. We no longer prize intellectual conversation, preferring instead to dismiss our opponents in 140-character feats of rhetoric. We routinely scour the private lives and social media accounts of our political opponents in the hopes of demonizing them as archaic, unthinking, and bigoted. Whenever we find an example of queer hatred, we are quick to convince the public that the only proper way to deal with these haters is to hate them.

In contrast to contemporary gay activists, King found a way to condemn evil without condemning the evildoer. From within the midst of a people grown weary with struggle, King stood up to remind the oppressed of the humanity of their oppressors; to remind them that if love were the goal, then the path of hatred would never lead them there.

This isn’t to suggest King wasn’t angry — he was. With the righteous indignation of a prophet, he demanded that his society grant him the dignity that God had guaranteed him. But King’s anger must be situated within his overall ethics of nonviolent resistance. King might have marched into the corrupt marketplace of his day, hurling to the ground every graven ideology of injustice; but his actions and his message only have meaning when they are framed within his firm conviction that “unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

Though we have come quite far in the past few years, we are still routinely discriminated against. But rather than follow King’s example, some of us have decided to meet ideological violence head on with our own. We demand to be taken seriously, even as we dismiss our opponents’ request that we listen to them.

Here, too, we can learn from King, who calls us to “see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” For, as he reasons, it is possible for all of us to “learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” When we listen to our enemies — no, when we listen to our brothers — we allow ourselves the opportunity to effect lasting change at relational levels. Further, by seeking to understand those with whom we disagree, we call bluff on the entire system of fundamentalism, which is the very condition that makes ideological tyranny possible in the first place.

King called for blacks to love the white men who hated them. Why? Because, says King, the white man “needs the love of the Negro … to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.” In a similar way, when we love the straight people who fear and misunderstand us, we become an example of the kind of queer love we’re advocating. When we love our opposition, without any promise of return, we remind our power-drunk world that true love is always queer since it subverts the norm of tribalism by forcing the lover to traverse the chasm between “us” and “them.”

Of course, King’s is only one way of doing activism. We have every right to keep going about queer politics with the same fundamentalism we’re ironically impugning. But if we are serious about our desire to be “on the right side of history,” we need to be clear about where exactly that boundary is drawn. As Dr. King reminds us, that boundary isn’t between black and white, or queer and straight — that boundary is between hate and love. If Dr. King is right about this, then I wonder if it’s possible to side with the queers, and yet still be on the wrong side of history.

But 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.

Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore.

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