Injustice stretches further than race
Observer Viewpoint | Monday, January 17, 2005
Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is a day to remember this great man and the things he stood for: equality under the law, unconditional love, non-violent protest and brotherhood amongst all peoples. Beyond that I think Monday was a day that drew us into reflection, not only of inconsistencies and inequities of the past, but of the present and, unfortunately, the future. In the midst of our reflection we must ask ourselves, both as an individual and a collective society, if there is an issue of prejudice that must be addressed.
My reflection brings me specifically to one issue: gay rights in America, or as some might say, the partial rights of gay people in America. It is not difficult to see, with an open eye mind you, how American homosexuals face prejudice in this country. While I admit, the story of gay rights in America has not been plagued with the level of violence or outright refusal of basic rights that the story of civil rights was, it is still very important to bring our attention to the injustices visited upon many gay people. As King would remind us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
More than anything I believe this country is in need of an impassioned call to action to strive for gay rights. I feel it is important because currently there is a sitting president who supports a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Couple that with many other public policies, including the embarrassing “don’t ask don’t tell” policy of the armed forces, denying gay people the right to openly serve in the military, and common public misconceptions, there is reason for great alarm.
On April 16, 1963, King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he addresses influential Birmingham clergymen who undermined his message and method. Some of the lessons King taught in this powerful text about the struggle for civil rights can and should be applied to today’s struggle in America for gay rights.
First, drawing upon teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, King wrote, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” In my opinion, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy of the armed forces, according to this standard, is clearly unjust. This policy forces homosexuals to deny an aspect of their personality. As the situation stands, many gay people and lesbians are forced to repress a key aspect of themselves in order to fight for their country. It strikes me as sickly ironic that many men and women are fighting for liberty when they cannot openly liberate themselves. If that is not a degradation of personality, I do not know what is.
King also wrote, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.” The constitutional ban on gay marriage, if it were to pass through Congress and be signed into law by President George W. Bush, which he has indicated he would do, is clearly indifference made legal. This ban would make it legal to deny homosexual couples the same rights heterosexuals enjoy in marriage. I think it would be hard to say with a straight face how that would not be a majority forcing a minority to obey a law that is in no way binding to the majority itself. I think it is pretty obvious.
As I said above, I believe America needs a strong call to direct action in the fight for gay rights. King in his letter also addresses why direct action is needed. He outlines why it is not OK to be moderate in the face of prejudice. Many whites during the Civil Rights movement believed in the equality King was preaching but did not agree with his methods, which they believed caused too much of a disturbance. King clearly expresses why they should not hold to that, and I believe this applies to the plight for gay rights as well. King stressed that it was unacceptable to hold to a “negative peace, which is the absence of tension, [instead of] to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” For those of us who believe homosexuals are not getting their fair share of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it is no longer okay to idly sit by and watch the deterioration of the civil liberties this country is so lovingly built upon. Not only should we desire to cause and create tension, it is the proper thing to cause and create tension. King put it best when he wrote, “Injustice must be exposed to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
For those who may object and say, “This situation will work itself out,” King addressed that issue as well. To those people King writes, “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.” It is simply not enough to hope it happens. As Dr. King so wisely notes of history, “The people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.”
I hope on this day of reflection on the life and message of King, instead of asking yourself why you are attending class you are asking yourself what in this society demands action. King’s life and tragic death would be in vain if we continually turn a blind eye to the injustices perpetuated. May we all long for the time when “the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”