Expanding Dr. King’s Dream For LGBT Americans
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day marks a time for Americans to acknowledge the progress—or lack thereof—made since King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in the summer of 1963.
For many, the federal holiday serves as a call to action to remedy the persistent inequality that the nation has carried into the 21st century. America’s schools and cities remain as segregated today as they were half a century ago. Blacks and Hispanics continue to be incarcerated and executed at an unacceptably higher rate than whites. And reports of racially based police brutality and racial profiling show no signs of fading away anytime soon.
Facts such as these are consistently interjected into the national conversation on Dr. King’s legacy and his vision for equality. But inexplicably absent from this dialogue are concerns for the progress of LGBT rights—a modern day parallel to the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.
Part of the reason is because Dr. King himself was ambiguous on the issue of gay rights. Few, if any, of King’s statements shed light on his personal views—though the issue came up once in an advice column he wrote in 1958 for Ebony magazine.
“I am a boy,” said an anonymous writer to Dr. 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?”
King replied that the situation the boy faced wasn’t uncommon, but that it required “careful attention.” He added: “You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honesty recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.”
The language King employs would be problematic by today’s standards but shouldn’t come as a surprise for a deeply religious man fighting for change in a different era more than fifty years ago.
King’s overall lack of commentary on the issue of LGBT rights has enabled those carrying on his legacy to try to fill the void.
The Rev. Bernice King, for example, has been a vocal opponent of gay rights and has spurned the idea of including gays and lesbians in her father’s vision for equality. In 2005, she led a march to her father’s grave while demanding a constitutional ban on gay marriage. While her views on the matter could be evolving, it’s important to note that her mother, Coretta Scott King, was a major advocate of gay rights.
As the amount of minority groups seeking equality expands, so must Dr. King’s vision for a country based on principles of equality and judgment only on the content of one’s character. King will always be revered as the most prominent advocate for racial equality in our nation’s history, but it’s critical to remember that his pursuit of equality was not limited to race.
Given this, why can’t Dr. King’s dream be expanded to include equal rights for the LGBT community? How could King’s famous invocation of the founding fathers on the National Mall in 1963, that “all men are created equal,” exclude individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation?
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy was one of inclusion. He is undoubtedly America’s all-time greatest spokesman on civil rights and equality, and if we truly seek to realize his dream and achieve a nation where all people are created equal, then we must move to accept everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexuality.
The federal holiday we recognize in Dr. King’s honor must therefore be a reminder that there is much more necessary work to combat the problems that minorities of all types face—work we should do with what King called “the fierce urgency of now.”
Graham White was a former intern with Generation Progress and now is on the executive board of the Black Law Students Association at Yale. You can follow him on Twitter @GrahamWhiteNY.