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Gay is the New Black like Me

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

My classes have a thing or two to say about gay marriage, and it’s kind of distracting. Even before the recent legalization of gay marriage in New York, my students have been bringing up the marriage equality movement in the classroom. They’re reminded of the issue as we’ve discussed certain vocabulary words or short stories, and they quickly devolve into debating the issue amongst themselves. So far this summer, I’ve quickly steered away from the topic because we haven’t time for the divergence, but I’m admittedly happy to see them apply our lessons to the world around them

I can, however, foresee us indulging in a discussion of gay rights later this month, when my literature class begins reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, an account of the author’s journey through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in the fall of 1959. Though a white journalist, Griffin darkened his skin with a combination of anti-vitiligo medicine, skin creams, and UV treatment to learn firsthand how blacks were treated in the segregated South.

I have to admit that, having never read the book before, I was initially skeptical of its validity. Visions of C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man kept popping into my head, and I couldn’t think of a single white man who could pass for black without the aid of the Tropic Thunder makeup crew on his side. But now that I’ve started reading, I realize that my incredulity actually helps the book. As I read, I’m amazed by how many people fail even to look at Griffin once they’ve registered his skin color. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it was for people to fight for civil rights when the opposition hardly acknowledged the mere humanity of racial minorities.

But I’m also struck by the arguments and observations that sound uncannily like those heard today regarding gay marriage. They remind me of the heated debate about Proposition 8 back in 2008 when, perhaps inspired by the upsurge in black polling caused by the nomination of Barack Obama, gay marriage proponents equated the fight for marriage equality to the Civil Rights Movement. Many blacks chafed at the comparison, but as I read Griffin’s account of the segregated South, I see how similar they are. See, for example, this passage from a conversation Griffin has with several back men in a café:

“[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.”

Reading this passage, I immediately thought of a common argument made by gay marriage opponents: that marriage equality is an endorsement of immorality and would lead to a slippery slope of consequent calls to legalize child molestation, polygamy, and bestiality. It was a ridiculous argument when I first heard it, and it’s a ridiculous argument now that I can equate it to a historical fallacy.

It gets worse, too, as I read of the stereotypes whites had of black morality. Take for instance this scene, in which Griffin hitchhikes through Alabama and is picked up by a young white man who interrogates him about 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 and reading books like Black BoyI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Invisible Man, I’m no stranger to the stories of racial stereotypes. And had I read this book a few years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to see this passage as anything but a history lesson—a portrayal of a time and opinion we’ve long grown past. That, I think, is an issue that many students—especially those who don’t naturally gravitate toward reading—tend to have with literature classes: Many don’t see the relevance to their world or to today’s society.

But now as I read these passages, I can easily see how the book remains culturally relevant today. One can easily substitute “homosexual” for “Negro” and “straight” for “white” to see a common misconception of gay culture as immoral and polyamorous, not to mention the common belief among opponents that marriage is the exclusive property of one group of people.

The target may be different, but neither the prejudice nor the approach to fighting for oppression has changed. A lynch mob, after all, is no different from a gay bashing, and the diatribe from the so-called intellectuals is just as ignorant. In one scene, Griffin sifts through a collection of hate pamphlets, news clippings, and other racist propaganda against blacks and is disgusted by the tactics used:

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.

Though not wholly surprising, it’s odd to see how little bigotry has changed over the years—that FOX News and other gay-marriage opponents are still relying on the same tired stratagem of distortion and propaganda used some 50 years ago. Of course, the good news is that equality won that fight 50 years ago. I expect that soon enough, we’ll make it two-for-two.

And that’s probably what makes reading Black Like Me an exciting choice for my students right now, as they watch Americans fight for marriage equality, especially here in California. For them, the experiences of John Howard Griffin don’t have to be mere history; they are as prevalent now as they were in 1959.

I won’t use my position as an educator to push my politics; that, of course, would be unethical. But I will teach this book as I feel it was meant to be taught: as an almost literal example of walking around in someone else’s skin and coming to understand others. From this, I hope they will be better-informed on what it means to be black or white or unabashedly rainbow-colored, and regardless of what their politics may be, that they’ll become more willing to empathize than assume, and help rather than harm. It’s only when we make connections like these and question ourselves that we actual engage the depths of our own beliefs. When I teach my students to write essays, I tell them not just to provide proof of their opinions but to analyze their examples to show how they prove the students’ points. So I will not tell them that these passages prove that the Civil Rights Movement is just like the push for marriage equality. Instead, I will ask them if the parallelism does prove anything, and then I will ask them to consider carefully whether or not we, 50 years later, are still fighting for civil rights. There is no right or wrong answer, but I hope they do what’s best for the people.

(July 2011)