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Gay is the New Black like Me

How a Civil Rights Classic Still Resonates in Today’s Fights for Equality
By Vinnie Plaza

School has always seemed to have a narrow angled view about gay marriage, and it disturbs me greatly. Even before gay marriage was legalized in NY, I have seen many of my students bring up the question of whether the gay marriage equality movement was valid. They are reminded of the often said slur’s and stereotypes often portrayed within our society. The issue quickly whirlwinds in their mind. In my classroom I always try to preach tolerance and respect.

However, when my class began reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, a 1959 account of the author’s travels through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, these questions were brought up yet again. You see, although Griffin was a white journalist, he often darkened his skin with pigments and creams to travel down south and learn first-hand how the blacks were treated in the south.

I had personally never read the book before and was at first skeptical of it’s validity. It faintly reminded me of C. Thomas Howell’s Soul Man. I figured you’d have to put on so much makeup to accurately portray the look that you would end up resembling Tropic Thunder. That being said, the book really changed my mind about several topics related to the civil rights movement.

Going back to gay marriage, it also reminded me of the heated debate about Prop 8 in 2008. Gay marriage was often equated to the Civil Rights Movement. Many blacks chafed at this comparison but reading Griffin’s account, they both seem quite similar. For example, this passage in particular rings true in my mind:

“[Whites claim] the minute you give me my rights to vote when I pay taxes, to have a decent job, a decent home, a decent education—then you’re taking that first step toward ‘race-mixing’ and that’s the part of the great secret conspiracy to ruin civilization—to ruin America.”

After reading this passage, I considered a common argument argued by gay marriage opponents: in which marriage equality is an endorsement of immorality. Seems ridiculous in my mind, but the logical fallacy is similar in both accounts.

Later in the book, it gets worse as well, as I continued to read about the stereotypes whites had against blacks. This scene, in which Griffin hitchhikes through Alabama and is picked up by a young white man who decides to interrogate him about the corresponding black culture.

His questions had the spurious elevation of a scholar seeking information, but the information he sought was entirely sexual, and presupposed that in the ghetto the Negro’s life is one of marathon sex with many different partners, open to the view of all; in a word, that marital fidelity and sex as love’s goal of union with the beloved object were exclusively the white man’s property.

Growing up in America, I would read books such as Black Boy and Invisible Man. These stories were some of the first times in which I had first learned about racial stereotypes. This passage seemed to equate to a classic history lesson, yet you can see how even though we can grow past opinions, it seems that these opinions often reappear on unrelated topics.

But now that I read thhese passages, I can quite easily see how this book could be viewed as culturally relevant even today in the modern time. It would’t be hard to reclassify homosexual for negro or straight for white to see a common misconception about the two groups.

Although the target is different, the prejudice and approach are the same even today. After all, a lych mob is not much different then gay bashing. Griffin sifted through several collections of hate pamphlets and propaganda in his book:

It is perhaps the most incredible collection of [newspaperman P.D.] East calls “assdom” in the South. It shows that the most obscene figures are not the ignorant ranting racists, but the legal minds who front for them, who “invest” for them the legislative proposals and the propaganda bulletins. They deliberately choose to foster distortions, always under the guise of patriotism, upon a people who have no means of checking the facts.

Although not entirely surprising, it seems strange to see how little bigotry has actually changed over the years and we continue to see the same distorted views on FOX News and correlating stations. Of course, the good news is that 50 years ago, the war was won, and we can win it again.