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「Yoruba Richen:同運與社運」- What the Gay Rights Movement Learned from the Civil Rights Movement


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Election night 2008 was a night that tore me in half. It was the night that Barack Obama was elected. 148 years after the end of slavery, and 48 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, an African-American was elected president. Many of us never thought that this was possible until the moment that it happened. And in many ways, it was the climax of the black civil rights movement in the United States.

I was in California that night, which was ground zero at the time for another movement: the marriage equality movement. Gay marriage was on the ballot in the form of Proposition 8, and as the election returns started to come in, it became clear that the right for same sex couples to marry, which had recently been granted by the California courts, was going to be taken away. So on the same night that Barack Obama won his historic presidency, the lesbian and gay community suffered one of our most painful defeats.

And then it got even worse. Pretty much immediately, African-Americans started to be blamed for the passage of Proposition 8. This was largely due to an incorrect poll that said that blacks had voted for the measure by something like 70 percent. This turned out not to be true, but this idea of pervasive black homophobia set in, and was grabbed on by the media. I couldn't tear myself away from the coverage. I listened to some gay commentator say that the African-American community was notoriously homophobic, and now that civil rights had been achieved for us, we wanted to take away other people's rights. There were even reports of racist epithets being thrown at some of the participants of the gay rights rallies that took place after the election. And on the other side, some African-Americans dismissed or ignored homophobia that was indeed real in our community. And others resented this comparison between gay rights and civil rights, and once again, the sinking feeling that two minority groups of which I'm both a part of were competing with each other instead of supporting each other overwhelmed and, frankly, pissed me off.

Now, I'm a documentary filmmaker, so after going through my pissed off stage and yelling at the television and radio, my next instinct was to make a movie. And what guided me in making this film was, how was this happening? How was it that the gay rights movement was being pitted against the civil rights movement? And this wasn't just an abstract question. I'm a beneficiary of both movements, so this was actually personal. But then something else happened after that election in 2008. The march towards gay equality accelerated at a pace that surprised and shocked everyone, and is still reshaping our laws and our policies, our institutions and our entire country. And so it started to become increasingly clear to me that this pitting of the two movements against each other actually didn't make sense, and that they were in fact much, much more interconnected, and that, in fact, some of the way that the gay rights movement has been able to make such incredible gains so quickly is that it's used some of the same tactics and strategies that were first laid down by the civil rights movement. Let's just look at a few of these strategies.

First off, it's really interesting to see, to actually visually see, how quick the gay rights movement has made its gains, if you look at a few of the major events on a timeline of both freedom movements. Now, there are tons of milestones in the civil rights movement, but the first one we're going to start with is the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. This was a protest campaign against Montgomery, Alabama's segregation on their public transit system, and it began when a woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person. The campaign lasted a year, and it galvanized the civil rights movement like nothing had before it. And I call this strategy the "I'm tired of your foot on my neck" strategy.

So gays and lesbians have been in society since societies began, but up until the mid-20th century, homosexual acts were still illegal in most states. So just 14 years after the Montgomery bus boycott, a group of LGBT folks took that same strategy. It's known as Stonewall, in 1969, and it's where a group of LGBT patrons fought back against police beatings at a Greenwich Village bar that sparked three days of rioting. Incidentally, black and latino LGBT folks were at the forefront of this rebellion, and it's a really interesting example of the intersection of our struggles against racism, homophobia, gender identity, and police brutality. After Stonewall happened, gay liberation groups sprang up all over the country, and the modern gay rights movement as we know it took off.

So the next moment to look at on the timeline is the 1963 March on Washington. This was a seminal event in the civil rights movement and it's where African-Americans called for both civil and economic justice. And it's, of course, where Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech, but what's actually less known is that this march was organized by a man named Bayard Rustin. Bayard was an out gay man, and he's considered one of the most brilliant strategists of the civil rights movement. He later in his life became a fierce advocate of LGBT rights as well, and his life is testament to the intersection of the struggles. The March on Washington is one of the high points of the movement, and it's where there was a fervent belief that African-Americans too could be a part of American democracy. I call this strategy the "We are visible and many in numbers" strategy.

Some early gay activists were actually directly inspired by the march, and some had taken part. Gay pioneer Jack Nichols said, "We marched with Martin Luther King, seven of us from the Mattachine Society"—which was an early gay rights organization—"and from that moment on, we had our own dream about a gay rights march of similar proportions." Several years later, a series of marches took place, each one gaining the momentum of the gay freedom struggle. The first one was in 1979, and the second one took place in 1987. The third one was held in 1993. Almost a million people showed up, and people were so energized and excited by what had taken place, they went back to their own communities and started their own political and social organizations, further increasing the visibility of the movement. The day of that march, October 11, was then declared National Coming Out Day, and is still celebrated all over the world. These marches set the groundwork for the historic changes that we see happening today in the United States.

And lastly, the "Loving" strategy. The name speaks for itself. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia, and invalidated all laws that prohibited interracial marriage. This is considered one of the Supreme Court's landmark civil rights cases. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, and that made the federal government only have to recognize marriages between a man and a woman. In United States v. Windsor, a 79-year-old lesbian named Edith Windsor sued the federal government when she was forced to pay estate taxes on her deceased wife's property, something that heterosexual couples don't have to do. And as the case wound its way through the lower courts, the Loving case was repeatedly cited as precedent. When it got to the Supreme Court in 2013, the Supreme Court agreed, and DOMA was thrown out. It was incredible. But the gay marriage movement has been making gains for years now. To date, 17 states have passed laws allowing marriage equality. It's become the de facto battle for gay equality, and it seems like daily, laws prohibiting it are being challenged in the courts, even in places like Texas and Utah, which no one saw coming.

So a lot has changed since that night in 2008 when I felt torn in half. I did go on to make that film. It's a documentary film, and it's called "The New Black," and it looks at how the African-American community is grappling with the gay rights issue in light of the gay marriage movement and this fight over the meaning of civil rights. And I wanted to capture some of this incredible change that was happening, and as luck or politics would have it, another marriage battle started gearing up, this time in Maryland, where African-Americans make up 30 percent of the electorate. So this tension between gay rights and civil rights started to bubble up once again, and I was lucky enough to capture how some people were making the connection between the movements this time. This is a clip of Karess Taylor-Hughes and Samantha Masters, two characters in the film, as they hit the streets of Baltimore and try to convince potential voters.

That's what's up, man, this is a righteous man over here.

Okay, are you registered to vote?

Okay. How old are you?

Twenty-one.

Twenty-one? You gotta get registered to vote. We got to get you registered to vote.

I ain't voting on no gay shit.

Okay, why? What's up?

I ain't with that.

That's not cool.

What made you be gay?

So what made you be straight? So what made you be straight?

You can't answer that question.

I used to not have the same rights as you, but I know that because a black man like yourself stood up for a woman like me, I know that I've got the same opportunities. So you, as a black man, have the opportunity to stand up for somebody else. Whether you're gay or not, these are your brothers and sisters out here, and they need you to represent.

Who is you to tell somebody who they can't have sex with, who they can't be with? They ain't got that power. Nobody has that power to say, "You can't marry that young lady." Who has that power? Nobody.

But you know what? Our state has put the power in your hands, and so what we need you to do is vote for, you gonna vote for 6.

I got you.

Vote for 6, okay?

I got you.

All right, do y'all need community service hours? You do? All right, you can always volunteer with us to get community service hours. Y'all want to do that? We feed you. We bring you pizza.

Thank you. What's amazing to me about that clip that we just captured as we were filming is, it really shows how Karess understands the history of the civil rights movement, but she's not restricted by it. She doesn't just limit it to black people. She sees it as a blueprint for expanding rights to gays and lesbians. Maybe because she's younger, she's like 25, she's able to do this a little bit more easily, but the fact is that Maryland voters did pass that marriage equality amendment. And in fact, it was the first time that marriage equality was directly voted on and passed by the voters. African-Americans supported it at a higher level than had ever been recorded. It was a complete turnaround from that night in 2008 when Proposition 8 was passed. It was, and feels, monumental. Like, we in the LGBT community have gone from being a pathologized and reviled and criminalized group to being seen as part of the great human quest for dignity and equality. We've gone from having to hide our sexuality in order to maintain our jobs and our families to literally getting a place at the table with the president and a shout out at his second inauguration. I just want to read what he said at that inauguration: "We the people declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal. It is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall."

Now we know that everything is not perfect, especially when you look at what's happening with the LGBT rights issue internationally, but it says something about how far we've come when our president puts the gay freedom struggle in the context of the other great freedom struggles of our time: the women's rights movement and the civil rights movement. His statement demonstrates not only the interconnectedness of those movements, but how each one borrowed and was inspired by the other. So just as Martin Luther King learned from and borrowed from Gandhi's tactics of civil disobedience and nonviolence, which became a bedrock of the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement saw what worked in the civil rights movement, and they used some of those same strategies and tactics to make gains at an even quicker pace.

Maybe one more other reason for the relative quick progress of the gay rights movement. Whereas a lot of us continue to still live in racially segregated spaces, LGBT folks, we are everywhere. We are in urban communities and rural communities, communities of color, immigrant communities, churches and mosques and synagogues. We are your mothers and brothers and sisters and sons. And when someone that you love or a family member comes out, it may be easier to support their quest for equality. And in fact, the gay rights movement asks us to support justice and equality from a space of love. That may be the biggest, greatest gift that the movement has given us. It calls on us to access that which is most universal and most intimate: a love of our brother and our sister and our neighbor. I just want to end with a quote by one of our greatest freedom fighters who's no longer with us, Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Nelson Mandela led South Africa after the dark and brutal days of Apartheid, and out of the ashes of that legalized racial discrimination, he led South Africa to become the first country in the world to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation within its constitution. Mandela said, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

So, as these movements continue on, and as freedom struggles around the world continue on, let's remember that not only are they interconnected, but they must support and enhance each other for us to be truly victorious. Thank you.

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