Today is Martin Luther King Day. While much ink has been spilled focusing on contribution to racial equality, it is important also to explore the meaning of the man and his work to LGBTQ people as we exist today.
Here are five Reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. matters to us in a time when the president-elect attacks one of the original Freedom Riders, the legendary John Lewis, as somehow “all talk”:
1. His tactics
The civil disobedience tactics that were employed by civil rights movement were also used by LGBT activists. When gay couples who want to get married stage sit-ins in county offices of states that don’t allow it, when ACT-UP protesters took to the streets of NYC in the early ’80s, and when LGBT veterans protested DADT in Washington, D.C., we were borrowing directly from the playbook MLK used in the African-American civil rights movement. We’ll need even more of that today.
2. His gay right hand man
The primary organizer of the legendary March On Washington was another great American hero who was both Black and openly gay in the 1960’s. Imagine that for just a moment. His name was Bayard Rustin, and he is the focus of an incredible documentary called Brother Outsider. We cannot and must not allow our media or each other to erase or ignore or minimize the achievements of LGBT people of color like mainstream African-American society has attempted to erase the service and sexual orientation of Bayard Rustin.
3. His rhetoric
Though his “I Have A Dream” speech is legendary, there was much more to the man and his oratorical skills than just that one speech. When historical figures like Harvey Milk or more recent ones like Lt. Dan Choi took to their various stages to advocate for equality, they were more than a little influenced by the presence of Dr. King. If or when we have our first gay President or our next major civil rights figure, they will undoubtedly be influenced by the captivating way MLK knew how to work a crowd.
4. His inspiration
In the thick of the fight for equality it is so easy to get bogged down, but MLK’s vision never wavered. When ENDA fails or when Trans people cannot openly serve in the military or when we suffer setbacks, we must always push forward while realizing that someday we will win. When we look at the man and his tactics, they inspire us to keep dreaming, believing.
5. His hope for the future
I am both Black and gay, and cannot think of a better time in American history to be both. As a black man, whatever achievements or personal successes I have come in part from the struggles and bravery of those who came before me. As a gay man, I live in a time when marriage is an option and when the HIV/AIDS epidemic is less horrifying than what older generations experienced–certain death. This is progress that comes from the millions of African-Americans and LGBTQ people before me who stood up, fought, and died for my rights, and they must not be ignored or forgotten. The meaning of Martin and the fight for equality runs through the veins of everyone who has ever taken a stand.
Make no mistake: history will prove LGBTQ people right just as it has proved African-Americans right.
This essay was written in 1994 but is even more relevant today. It was updated to reflect the threat posed to civil rights by the president-elect. Rob Smith is activist and author of Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming Of Age As A Gay Man In The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Army. Find him on twitter @robsmithonline