Civil Rights & The Complexities of Comparing Movements (Part 1)

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Drawing parallels between the movement for LGBT equality and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is a common occurrence. Profound lessons can be learned from this comparison, but first it is necessary to address the complexities of using racial analogies.

Many people find the comparison of these two movements frustrating and strongly resent this approach. In Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid explains, “prejudice against us as gay people differs significantly from prejudice against people because of race.” She argues that this approach makes “a largely white gay movement [sound] opportunistic.” Furthermore, some believe that these parallels are used to evoke empathy from white people who feel guilty about the way black people were treated. Vaid continues, “if we believe our analogies, we must act as if we cared about racial discrimination as much as about homophobia.” In addition, the fact that racism still persists despite the best efforts to eradicate it also fuels black resentment of gay activists’ use of racial comparisons. Lastly, Vaid emphasises that “By pursuing the path of civil rights, we consciously chose legal reform, political access, visibility, and legitimation over the long-term goals of cultural acceptance, social transformation, understanding, and liberation.” That being said, it becomes clear why we must strive not to equate these two movements even while comparing them so as not to miss out on the important insights that history provides.

On the other hand, Yoruba Richen, a documentary filmmaker who identifies as a member of both the African American and LGBT communities gave a TED talk in which she stresses the intersection of the LGBT equality and Black Civil Rights movements. She laments the fact that these movements have been pitted against each other and expresses her anger that these two minority groups are competing with each other instead of supporting each other.

Keeping these different opinions in mind, I hope that examining the similarities between the LGBT equality and Black Civil Rights movements (without equating the two) will help us become equipped with the perspective and understanding we need to not repeat our collective mistakes.

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The End of Sexual Identity

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In The End of Sexual Identity, Jenell Williams Paris begins by explaining, “sexual identity categories are social constructions […] contemporary categories for sexuality weren’t present in biblical cultures or even in my own society just over a hundred years ago” (p. 8-9). As she unpacks this statement, she emphasizes that sexual identity as we understand it today was not given by God at creation. Put concisely, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity” (p. 75). Therefore, Paris has concluded that sexual identity labels are one of the “patterns of the world to which [Christians] ought not conform” (p. 16).

The result of this is that Paris has chosen to become “unlabeled” with regard to her sexual identity. She states, “I don’t want to be heterosexual. […It is] a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings” (p. 43). As much as I wish that becoming “unlabeled” was a viable alternative to sexual identity as Paris claims it could be, I know that for all intents and purposes we cannot escape these labels. To her credit, Paris does admit that her decision to become “unlabeled” is “inane” to some extent. This will neither change the fact that she is privileged nor help reduce the marginalization and discrimination of those who are sexual minorities. But perhaps it is still a worthwhile concept to entertain. If nothing else, becoming “unlabeled” is a good conversation starter and helps “introduce a pause in the rush to judgment” (p. 14). Maybe that is reason enough to refuse to label our sexuality.

Overall, Paris provides a helpful framework for reconsidering how we think about sexuality but unfortunately, her approach is limited by the fact that the framework is a decidedly Christian one. It is one thing for Paris, a self-identified straight Christian woman to claim that she is “unlabeled,” but her call for the end of sexual identity carries a vastly different significance for someone who is not straight and not a Christian. Although Paris is aware of the fact that sexual desire as a central element of human identity is new (p. 10), she does not broach the subject of why this change has taken place. In Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid speaks to the fact that an LGBT identity not only provides a sense of validation, acceptance, and belonging, the resulting subculture “shelter[s] us from the judgment and disdain of a hostile world” (p. 33). People in the LGBT community value the ability to use labels in order to name their experience and find a sense of safety among those who have similar experiences. Vaid acknowledges that “Few of us are solely gay or lesbian or bisexual; we all harbor other identities that matter to us” (p. 283) but for those in the LGBT community, becoming “unlabeled” with regard to sexual identity is almost unthinkable.

Paris’s proposition that people choose to become “unlabeled” as an alternative to sexual identity is ultimately impractical and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, in The End of Sexual Identity she has provided a helpful framework that, though limited in its scope, enables those of us engaged in this dialogue to ask better questions and have more nuanced, insightful conversations.