My Problem With The “New Civil Right Movement”

An attempt at a discrimination graphic.

An attempt at a discrimination graphic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was just perusing Facebook (I really need to get a life) when I came across something that disturbed me. One of my friends posted a picture of a Jim Crow era water fountain sign. It was the sort of thing you would expect: two arrows pointed in opposite directions letting folks know which fountain was acceptable for them to use based on their race. Beneath this picture, in the comments, was the suggestion that this is what is happening to gay people now.
The thing is, that is not what is happening to gay people. It never really did happen to us. I am not saying we have it easy, that there are not massive cultural and legal hurdles for us to clear, because we don’t and there are. There have not, however, been separate restrooms, water fountains, lunch counters and schools. White people in the LGBTQ community can walk down the street without the presumption of criminality. They are presumed competent when applying for jobs.
We have begun to refer to our struggle as “The New Civil Rights Movement.” I take some small umbrage with that. Yes, our struggles are a civil rights issue, but the implied message is that our struggles are the same that PoC have dealt with and that our fight is the same. They are not.
Which is not to say our fight is less important. We can still be murdered and have our killers painted as victims simply because they were “freaked out” by us, even though the law is becoming increasingly clear that is not acceptable. Some in our community still have their families turn their backs on them. Our right to choose our family is still not universally recognized. These are our struggles and we should fight for a world in which they no longer exist.
To appropriate the language and history of another oppressed group though is not the right way to do it. It is dismissive of their struggles. It also white washes our own privilege. It is a way of saying, consciously or not, “see, we suffer too, so our culpability in your suffering is negated.”
Well it doesn’t work like that. I know too many white queer folk who are unapologetic, active racists. I know far too many more who are not open bigots but who are apologists for those active racists. We live in a world where Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, can come out and fight for us, yet I have yet to hear anyone in the Human Rights Campaign call out our problems with race in our country, or more importantly, our community.
There is nothing wrong with standing up for our rights. Indeed, we are obligated to ourselves and each other to do so. In doing that though, we have to be more conscious of our word choices and how they affect other groups who are oppressed. We have to be conscious of their history, our history, how the two are intertwined, and how they are different. We have to make an effort to understand the entire picture when it comes to oppression, otherwise, we will never be able to untangle the mess that privilege creates.

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4 thoughts on “My Problem With The “New Civil Right Movement”

  1. Christine,
    I think you make some good points here. However, during the 1980’s many gay folk/ gender non-conforming men were not allowed to use water fountains or even seek treatment from doctor’s because of the AIDS epidemic. Also, I would add that many states in the south, gay folk are not “presumed competent when applying for jobs.” Today, in Georgia and many other southern states, gay folk are denied housing, employment, and health care. There is a great book called Queer InJustice that addresses how LGBT folk are policed disproportionately; obviously race also comes into this equation.

    • Thank you for that info Michael. I will point out that we do have the “advantage” (if you want to call it that) of passing privilege and the closet. No one wants to be there, but we can avoid being denied basic human needs by pretending we are otherwise. PoC cannot do that.
      You’ve already acknowledged that race comes into the equation, so I won’t say much beyond the fact that when you look at hate crimes against us, and at that disproportionate policing, much of it is disproportionately against the PoC in our community.
      Like I said, I don’t deny our struggles, I just want folks to realize that they are not the same (I am guessing you get that.) Some tough talk on racism from the leaders in our community would also be nice.

      • Christine,
        I’m afraid I have to disagree with you here. There are many PoC that can pass as white, albeit unhealthy to do so, for it sanctions the dominant discourse. There are many LGBT folk that are NOT able to “pass” as straight, which of course is even more worrisome for gender non-conforming PoC.

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