“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone!

These days, MLK Jr. is popularly seen as a romanticized, everyman’s hero. His message is presented as a call for “colorblindness,” and appropriated by the likes of Glenn Beck and other extreme conservatives in support of their arguments against the so called “reverse racism” of affirmative action and other institutionalized attempts to address racial disparities. His activism has been sanitized and romanticized in the public consciousness, stripped of any real controversy or challenge to the status quo. As a result, a lot of people buy into the argument that Dr. King would have championed a radically individualistic understanding of issues of social justice – including the “if everyone just stopped noticing race, racism would go away” argument, a pretense that everyone has equal rights and opportunities, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Dr. King’s work was much more radical and complex than the simplistic, trite sentiment about everyone getting along we’ve reduced it to. We’ve forgotten – chosen to forget – that at the time of his death Dr. King wasn’t a nationally admired visionary, but rather a deeply divisive and, for some, very threatening figure. This was a man who was spied on and threatened by his own government, because he was seen as dangerous. And he was, in fact, a danger to a society in which white supremacy and other forms of injustice were enshrined in law and endorsed by the government.

He was not only an activist for racial justice, but also for economic justice, and against the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, and American militarism and imperialism. He didn’t see these issues as a distraction from the struggle for black civil rights, but rather as interconnected parts of the same larger struggle to create a more just world. And he made quite a lot of enemies as he spoke out against all forms of oppression. Edited to add: Socialist Worker has an excellent article on the Martin Luther King we don’t celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately believed in the common responsibility of all of us to fight all forms of injustice and suffering, and to be in solidarity with all who are denied their rights and their dignity. We can’t know for certain what he would say today about trans liberation, about gay liberation, about ethical consumerism, environmentalism, or any number of social justice issues that continue to face fierce opposition and oppression today. But what we can say for certain is that if we take up his clarion call to see all humans as our family, if we take seriously the call to stand against any injustice or suffering, we’ll care about trans rights, and LGB rights. We’ll care about the poor, and those without access to basic health care. We’ll care about literacy and the rights of all people to a decent education. Because injustice and inequality anywhere are a threat to justice and equality everywhere.

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice… But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ … I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be,” she said, quoting from her husband.

Coretta Scott King

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . .

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail


Strange priorities

Newsweek recently profiled Brian Brown, the president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.  The article presents a very sanitized picture of Brown and his work; it gives the impression that he’s some sort of moderate homophobe, not as hateful or prejudiced as the other guys.  As Jeremy Hooper of Prop 8 Trial Tracker points out, this is a rather strange way to depict a straight man with a “near-daily, decade-long obsession with same-sex marriage.”  Further, the article misrepresents NOM’s record, overstating its influence and success, and casts marriage equality supporters in a negative light.

Still, the article offers some insights on how Brown spins his image and his message to make it appear less homophobic than it is, and raises some interesting questions as to why Christians like Brown, a convert to Catholicism, invest so much effort and resources into opposing marriage equality.  NOM has been able to raise, and spend, huge amounts of money in support of anti-gay measures:

Although NOM operates with a skeleton staff, its budget has ballooned from $500,000 in 2007, when Brown cofounded the group, to more than $13 million today. With that war chest, it was able to pour some $5 million into 100 races in the recent elections.

That’s quite a lot of money, money that could make a huge, positive difference in many lives if spent thoughtfully.   NOM doesn’t disclose its donors, but it’s safe to say that most of it is coming from traditionalist Christians and churches.  This is just one organization, of course, and doesn’t include the millions of dollars groups like the LDS and Roman Catholic churches have invested in anti-gay campaigns – so it only represents a fraction of the expenditure on such campaigns in the US.  As always, I can’t but wonder why so many Christians think this issue is so important that it’s worth pouring so much individual and collective money into.  Honestly, this is something I found disturbing even when I still accepted the fundamentalist and homophobic version of Christianity I was raised to believe.  It’s one thing to believe same sex marriage is wrong, but what makes it SO wrong, so threatening, that millions of dollars are needed to deny it legal recognition?  What makes it so much more urgent or important that it deserves more attention and funding than any number of causes focused on actually helping people?  And if it’s really so awful, where are the millions of dollars being spent to ban divorce for straight couples?

Even if you read the Bible the way fundamentalists and evangelicals as literally as they claim it should be read, there’s no rationale for making fighting gay marriage and other LGB legal rights such a huge priority.  Again, if you look at what Jesus actually said about righteous conduct, and what will get you into heaven, there’s absolutely nothing in there about fighting for the government to enforce (one version of) Christian beliefs as law, and quite a lot about Christians’ obligations to respect the government (“render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s”), and about how the kingdom of heaven has completely different values, goals, and priorities than earthly kingdoms and governments.  Jesus rejected conventional measures of worth and status:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10, ESV)

Jesus was expected to overthrow the Roman government, and instead taught that his kingdom was of another world.  He taught that people who ignored the plight of the poor, hungry, sick, or downtrodden on earth would not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven, that the rich should give their money and possessions away to follow him, and that it’s easier for a rich person to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye (read: pretty damn impossible).  He taught that people should be more concerned with their own failings than with other people’s shortcomings.  And then there’s that pesky business about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others the way you’d want to be treated by them.

Christian anti-gay campaigns are fundamentally an attempt to use power and privilege against people with less power, and less privilege.  Their tools are wealth and political influence.  Their goals are to ensure that gay couples and families are treated with less dignity and respect than straight couples and families.  As such they are inherently opposed to everything Jesus stood for, and are run completely counter to how Jesus would have operated.  And they’re on no firmer ground if you look at the rest of the New Testament – not unless you decide to ignore Paul and Peter they say Christians should respect ruling authorities, or decide that James is being metaphorical when he says true religion is caring for orphans and widows.

So I’m wondering again how Christians like Brian Brown justify spending millions trying to codify their version of Christian teaching into law, while simultaneously being opposed to the government – and sometimes even the church – spending money to assist people in need.  Jesus was pretty specific about how both of those positions are incompatible with following him.  But I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising when fundamentalists show, again, that they don’t really believe the Bible.

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR)

Today is the 12th annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a day set aside to memorialize and mourn people who have been murdered in the previous year because of anti-transgender bias, and to raise awareness about anti-trans violence and hate crimes.

TDOR began as a memorial to honor Rita Hester, an African American trans woman brutally murdered in November 1998, the fourth Boston area trans woman to be killed in as many years (TransGriot).

Like Stacey Blahnik Lee, Hester was further violated after her death by news coverage that misgendered her, identifying her as male, using male pronouns, and referring to her by her former name – as is sadly typical of news coverage trans murder victims.

Like Lee and most victims of transphobic violence, Hester was a trans woman of color.  70% of the people memorialized in this year’s TDOR are people of color.  Trans women are overwhelmingly the targets of transphobic discrimination, sexual assault, rape, and physical violence.

As with most anti-trans murders, Hester’s murder remains unsolved.

Worldwide, 179 trans people are known to have been murdered in the past year; that’s an average of one trans person murdered every two days.  This number is almost certainly only a fraction of the true number of lives lost to transphobic violence in the past year.  Nor does this number include lives lost because of systemic denial of health care to transgender people, harassment and discrimination from medical professionals, and medical ignorance about transgender people and their health needs (Bird of Paradox).

While the recent attention to the problems of bullying and suicide among gay youth is much needed, the even higher rates of bullying and suicide among transgender people has largely been overlooked.  A recent study found that 41% of trans participants had attempted suicide in the past – compared to 1.6% of the overall population (PDF, ht Bird of Paradox, see previous link).  This number is also probably a low estimate.

TDOR honors the memories of people who have, in life and in death, been denied the honor and dignity that was their birthright as human beings.  It reminds us that our society’s insistence on ignorant and inhumane gender norms violently denies and restricts the lived realities of so many people.  It reminds us that there are people who are no longer with us because of the lies about sex and gender we demand that everyone conform to and accept as truth.

Those of us who are cisgender – those of us whose bodies line up with what our internal sense of gender (our gender identity) tells us to expect – bear a responsibility to listen to and lift up the voices of trans people, and be in solidarity with them in fighting societal cis privilege and anti-trans discrimination.  We can start by:

– Taking some time to learn about and remember the people who have died in the past year.
– Participating in a TDOR ceremony where we live.
– Reading and promoting blogs, articles, books, etc. by trans people, especially trans women and trans POC.  TransGriot, Bird of Paradox, Questioning Transphobia are some good blogs to start with.
– Educating ourselves about trans issues and transphobia.  The “Trans 101” links in the righthand column at Questioning Transphobia are a good place to start.
– Working to recognize and check our cis privilege.
– Finding ways to volunteer with or support local and national trans organizations.

Exploiting LGBT suicides, exhibit A: David Barton

This is a perfect and, in my opinion, not unrepresentative example of how some evangelicals not only don’t care about LGB suicides, but also exploit them to advance an anti-gay agenda. David Barton, an evangelical minister and a “professor” at Glenn Beck’s “university,” cites high rates of suicides and shorter life expectancy as evidence that homosexuality is an “unhealthy lifestyle,” comparable to smoking or eating too much salt or fast food.  He concludes: “Why don’t we [meaning the government] regulate homosexuality?”

LGB suicides don’t warrant even a shred of compassion or concern for Barton; his tone in discussing them is glib, and gloating.  And the obvious implication of his comments is that high suicide rates and shorter life expectancies among LGB people are just what we should expect.  That these are necessary and deserved consequences for being gay, and there’s nothing to be done to address these issues besides “regulating” homosexuality, whatever that means.  Basically, he wants a society where the only options for gay people are either to suffer horribly or just cease to exist altogether – perhaps even to be executed for being gay.  Very Christ-like of him.

Barton has a very well-established record of promoting not only extreme homophobia, but also racism, xenophobia, and historical revisionism (read: completely fabricated bullshit) intended to advance his hateful agenda. He claims, for example, that the three-fifths rule was an anti-slavery measure intended to benefit slaves (!!),  that “slavery was not initially raced-based,” and that “Republicans . . . have led the fights for abolition, emancipation, voting rights, civil rights, and even integration, while Democrats have fostered racism for political gain.”  Right.

Barton also opposes immigration reform on the grounds that, um, God drew the borders of the United States, and allowing open borders requires accusing God of making a mistake.  He’s also been associated with virulently anti-Semitic groups and Holocaust deniers.  And through Barton’s WallBuilders organization, these absurd lies about American history are peddled to countless homeschooling children around the nation, including children at my former church, who are being taught that the Founding Fathers were all Christian, that they never intended any meaningful separation of church and state, that the evangelical church and the country as a whole have never had a problem with racism, and so on.

There’s a common theme here, of course, of using religion as a cover for extreme hatred and bigotry.  Hispanic immigrants?  Jesus doesn’t want them here.  Homosexuals?  Jesus doesn’t want them to get married, have sex, or otherwise be treated like actual human beings.  Civil rights?  Real Christians know the Republicans are the real pro civil rights party.  And on and on.  I don’t think it’s coincidental that Barton defends such varied forms of bigotry.  For him and largely white conservative evangelicals like him, these things are all connected.  Barton and his ilk display a nauseating nostalgia for a time in America’s past when the supremacy of white, Anglo, Protestant Christian patriarchy was unquestioned and even more pervasive than it is today.  They call for “restoring America” to its former virtue and glory – which is code for restoring America to a time when women couldn’t vote or own property, when people could be jailed or institutionalized for being LGBT, when black people, Jews, and non-Christians knew their place,

It can be tempting to just write people like Barton off, but some of these folks have tremendous influence.  Barton has access, through prominent Republican and conservative leaders, to a huge conservative audience.  As the clip above points out, Barton is the former co-chair of the Texas Republican party, and has campaigned for prominent Republican candidates like Sharron Angle and Mark Rubio.  He’s not only an “instructor” at Beck University (try typing that with a straight face), he’s also a major “source” for Beck’s falsehoods about the history and present reality of race relations in the US.

And – as I found out while working on this post – his influence as a pseudohistorian now extends far beyond conservative homeschoolers and the Republican base.  Barton was an “expert” witness in the Texas school board hearings which ultimately led to the conservative majority on the board ordering a state-wide radical revision of history textbooks to reflect a version of American history biased towards white, conservative Christians.  As with Barton, the ideology behind the textbook revisions was extremely pro-capitalist (classist and anti-poor), racist, anti-sex (and presumably anti-LGBT), anti-separation of church and state, etc.

These ideologies are not separate or distinct for many white conservative evangelicals engaged in the “culture wars.”  They’re all part of a vision to “restore” America to what they claim was a simpler, more moral time – but what in reality where many Americans’ rights and liberties were severely restricted, and white patriarchal supremacy was even more institutionalized in our culture and government than it is today.  Barton illustrates how enmeshed a Christian exclusivism characterized by extreme and explicit homophobia, racism, and xenophobia is with the current culture  of the Republican party.

Sunday round up (late night version)

Some of this week’s religion and gender news, short and sweet this time!

Sign a petition asking CA Gov. Schwarzenegger to end the shackling of pregnant inmates. (CA residents only)

Presbyterian (PCUSA) clergy and elders can sign the Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience, a petition supporting marriage equality in the church.

Catholics for Equality, an LGBT rights Catholic group, just launched.  Some non-Catholic LGBT activists are skeptical.

An ad campaign urging the Catholic Church to ordain women will run during the Pope’s visit to London next month. (ht TheSliverParty).

A columnist at the Catholic Exchange “advises” a trans woman: “It is better to die than to offend God.” What happened to sanctity of life? (ht knitmeapony)

The National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island Director compares gay parents to dead parents.  Very Classy.  Also super Christ-like.

Like the debate over gender roles, the debate over gay marriage has parallels to the 19th-century debat e in the States over slavery. (ht KidCharlemgn/Outside of Eden).

Ecclesia de Lange, a South African Methodist Minister, has been suspended for performing a same sex marriage.

This series of articles by Juliet Jacques on her gender reassignment journey is very worth reading.

GLAAD has their weekly LGBT religion news roundup here.

Sunday roundup

Some of this week’s religion, gender, and sexuality news, starting with some international news:

Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be executed for allegedly committing adultery, has “confessed” to being an accomplice in her late husband’s death.  The likely coerced confession has led Human Rights Watch to sound the alarm that Iran may be planning to execute her shortly.  An interview with Ashtiani’s former lawyer, now seeking asylum in Norway, is here.  A petition to free Ashtiani can be found here. (Via Elizabeth Esther.)

Mexico’s Supreme Court has upheld Mexico City laws allowing gay marriages and adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.  Gay marriages and adoptions are legal only in Mexico City, but must be recognized throughout the country.  Mexico mayor Marcelo Ebrard has filed a lawsuit claiming defamation against Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Sandoval refused to retract accusations that Mexican Supreme court took bribes to make these rulings.  Sandoval is also under fire for using the Spanish equivalent of “fa**ot” in decrying the Court’s decision to uphold the adoption law.  Meanwhile, an archdiocesan spokesman claims the mayor has caused harm to Mexico City than the drug cartels and has compared him to Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet in being a “fascist . . . [with] an undeniable desire to persecute the church.”  Unsurprisingly, he is also being sued for defamation by the mayor.  Good heavens.  Stay classy, Mexican Catholic officials!

Closer to home, 10 year old Will Phillips is putting marriage equality opponents on notice.  This kid must scare the pants off the NOM crowd.

Laura at The Redheaded Skeptic has a great four-post series on how Focus on the Family ruins families, starting with a post on Dobson’s book The Strong Willed Child.

Vyckie at No Longer Quivering on how women get lured into and stuck in the patriarchy trap: Husbands love your wives: the peanut butter in the patriarchy trap.

Excellent post by Rita Nakashima Brock on marriage in the Bible that carefully picks apart marriage equality opponents’ claims that the Bible unanimously supports their definition of “traditional marriage”:

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. “Traditional marriages” in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her — for this, she was supposed to be grateful. When women seek marriages, such as Naomi arranged for Ruth, it was to avoid an even worse fate such as destitution.

GLAAD also has a great weekly LGBT religion news roundup.

Quick hit: Prop 8 ruled unconstitutional

Yesterday Vaughn Walker, Chief Judge of the Northern California U.S. District Court, ruled  CA Prop 8 unconstitutional on Due Process and Equal Protection grounds.  You can read the full ruling here (scribd online) or here (pdf).

There’s much more to be said about the detailed, thorough text of the decision, but for now it’s worth highlighting a couple points.  One, Judge Walker forcefully argued that Prop 8 was based on unproven assertions that gay and lesbian couples are inferior to straight couples:

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.  Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis,the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Secondly, the ruling is not just an argument for the equality of heterosexuals and sexual minorities, or an argument for marriage equality, it’s an argument for gender equality as well:

The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. FF 21. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. FF 19-20, 34-35. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. FF 33. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. FF 48. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals. (Emphases mine)

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is an unprecedented declaration of gender equality from a federal court.  Amazing, and incredibly encouraging.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that in the end this isn’t about some abstracted notion of equality.  This is about how inequalities materially affect people’s lives – people who are fully human, and fully deserving of the rights, worth, and dignity that every human being merits.  This reflection by Celia Perry on what Judge Walker’s decision means to her as the daughter of a lesbian couple is a great reminder of what’s at stake here, and incredibly moving:

I was eight when Braschi’s case was decided. Like any normal eight-year-old, I certainly wasn’t up on LGBT caselaw, and I definitely didn’t know how precarious my family’s legal situation was. But although I didn’t understand it intellectually, I could feel it in my gut. I knew that my family was different, and that most Americans didn’t approve of it. No matter how loving a family is—and let me tell you, mine epitomizes the four-letter verb—that’s a whole lot of shame for a third-grader to internalize. And that shame is probably part of the reason why, in October 2008, I was a sobbing mess as I spoke at my moms’ wedding. (They’d scheduled the wedding before the November elections, knowing that Prop. 8 would likely pass, making their nuptials no longer legally viable.) As I stood before 150 of our closest friends and family with one mom on either side of me, so many things raced through my mind, like all the times I heard the word “faggot” casually thrown around at recess, and how Ellen DeGeneres stunned the nation when she came out on TV only a decade earlier. But most of all, the thing making me bawl like a baby was knowing that I hadn’t talked to my best friend about my moms being gay until after we’d graduated from high school in 1999. And that, right there, is why marriage is so important. It’s a public seal of approval. It’s our society saying that one’s sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of one’s parents, doesn’t bestow second-class citizenship. And that it’s never something to be ashamed of.

It didn’t take Judge Walker’s ruling today for me to know that my moms deserve the rights of marriage. But after all this time, it sure is good to hear a judge say it.

“One’s sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of one’s parents, doesn’t bestow second-class citizenship.”  Because there’s no such thing as a second-class human being.  This is a great day for the cause of equality, one more victory in the struggle to build a society where the full humanity and dignity of all people are respected.