MLK’s lessons elude opponent of local LGBT activism

By Damon Krane
Monday, January 28, 2002
The Post (Athens, Ohio)
Thursday, January 31, 2002
Athens News


We recently observed a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life struggling for social justice and left us many valuable lessons. Apparently, these lessons have been lost on Brian Fruchey, author of last Wednesday’s letter to The Post, “Culture pushes too hard for acceptance” (also published in the Athens News as “Hypersensitivity among gays may help provoke anti-gay violence,” 1/24/02).

Drawing a connection between the recent campus attack on a lesbian student and attempts to force the Boy Scouts of America to admit openly gay members, Fruchey writes: “There are two things that are occurring in the local gay community here in Athens. One is a ‘hate crime.’ The other is pressure being exerted on the Boys Scouts of America to allow gays. It is naive to think that these two events are unrelated.”

According to Fruchey, “Forced (either legally, financially, etc.) integration will cause more violence.” And in case you missed it the first time: “Change happens slowly. If the gay community cannot understand this, more people will get hurt.”

I’m not sure whether Fruchey is a well-meaning moderate who simply fails to recognize the suffering of people devalued because of their sexuality, or whether he is an avid bigot making thinly-veiled threats against the LGBT community. His attempts to downplay the recent gay-bashing on campus certainly make his motives suspect. He puts the phrase “hate crime” in quotation marks and says “I feel sorry for the girl who was pushed.” In reality the woman (presumably 18 or older) reported being beaten by multiple assailants, not simply “pushed.” Furthemore, there’s no need to put quotation marks around what the Ohio University Police Department has classified as a hate crime, given that the incident fits the relevant legal definition. But regardless of Fruchey’s motives, the next time he feels like lecturing LGBT people and their allies on proper tactics, I suggest he take a look at King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“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,” wrote King from that southern jail cell. “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society… Then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Similarly, those devalued because of their sexuality and targetted for beatings and even lynching (as in the recent case of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard); those told their feelings of desire and love are unnatural and filthy; those consequently plagued by disproportionately high suicide rates, homelessness and unemployment; those who are by law forbidden to marry their life partners and by custom the subjects of endless ridicule and abuse… they too find it difficult to wait for the basic rights and respect that all people deserve.

To King, those who have not had to endure the oppression in question have no right to “set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom.”

Even more important, King observed that change does not just take time.

“Actually, time by itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively,” wrote King. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability, it comes through tireless effort.”

Indeed, the committed Civil Rights leader King understood quite well what ex-slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed a century earlier.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men [and women] who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters.

“This struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may be both moral and physical. But it must always be a struggle,” wrote Douglass. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”

Indeed, the emergence of the modern gay rights movement is a testament to the necessity of struggle for progress. It was not hope in the eventual inevitability of change that ignited the movement, it was a riot — specifically, the Stonewall Riot of 1969 in New York City: the first time that gay men and women responded to the violence of bigotted police officers by banding together by the hundreds and, quite literally, fighting back.

It is certainly true that struggling for freedom may provoke the violence of oppressors. King is not the only anti-racist activist to be murdered for his efforts. But does that mean oppressed people should just quietly acquiesce to the violence they often face no matter what they are doing? Lynching began long before the modern Civil Rights Movement, and, while it may be news to Fruchey, LGBT people were being beaten in Athens long before anyone tried to integrate the Boy Scouts.

Yet in our present case the relationship between gay rights activism and anti-gay violence may simply be a product of Fruchey’s imagination. Contray to his suggestion of a causal link between the two, no evidence has been publicized suggesting that the recent gay-bashing on campus was committed in retaliation for the Out Scouts campaign. We don’t know if the attackers were aware of the campaign. They may not even have known the woman they assaulted was walking home from a gay dance. All we do know is that, according to the survivor’s testimony, her attackers perceived her to be gay. So forget the Out Scouts campaign, I wonder if Fruchey thinks women with the audacity to wear their hair short and don neck tyes are just asking to be stalked and beaten. Shouldn’t they just “accept” that “change happens slowly?”

The January 13 attack may not have been intended to intimidate Out Scouts into abandoning their campaign. However, it is clear that Fruchey wants the attack to have a silencing effect on the gay community.

“Instead of trying to change the world, this community would be better off trying to change some of their strongly held beliefs. Maybe then, we will achieve peace in our time,” counsels the learned Fruchey.

Returning to King, it is worth emphasizing that the racism he fought and the heterosexism LGBT activists are battling today are different from one another in many ways. However, it makes sense to recognize the similar dynamics of different forms of oppression and to apply to one struggle lessons gleaned from another. At least that was King’s perspective – much to the chagrin of other civil rights leaders and white moderates who wanted to compartmentalize the struggle for justice and equality.

In his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” King connected the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US to the anti-colonial movements in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa then being waged in opposition to the US and European governments. Shortly before an assassin’s bullet claimed King’s life the following year, the burgeoning democratic socialist King launched his Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to unite the struggles of African Americans with workers of every color battling their exploitation at the hands of those who own the means of production. For King, all of our lives are intertwined in “an inescapable network of mutuality.” Therefore, “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The remarkable similarity between King’s words here and the labor movement’s slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” should not be surprising. Even though King’s ideas were expressed with an unusual eloquence, most of them are far from original. You can find varients of King’s most famous quotes expressed by feminists, LGBT rights advocates, anti-colonialists, labor unionists and others engaged in various movements for social justice — people battling various forms of oppression, both before and since King’s time.

Thanks to our “inescapable network of mutuality,” different struggles teach many of the same lessons. Crucial among those lessons is that time itself heals no wounds. Humanity’s hope lies not in the patient endurance of injustice but in making the suffering of anyone the concern of everyone – and in militantly struggling for a better world.

LGBT people fighting to change the heterosexist culture that breeds physical assault deserve the active support of everyone in Athens. Thirty-four years after King’s death, the time to struggle for a better world is still right now.


Epilogue, 1/25/13

In a bizzarre turn of events, Brian Fruchey went on to be elected president of the Ohio University College Democrats, a group largely comprised of gay and lesbian students. Of course during Fruchey’s tenure the OU Dems declined to take a position on the war against Iraq, and later the group was openly hostile toward the Athens Cant Wait Coalition’s effort to disrupt military recruitment for the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. So perhaps Fruchey’s election was not so bizzarre after all.

While most of my column above focuses on arguing against the political strategy of incrementalism, I feel compelled to state here my belief that incrementalism is often just a cover story for people with fundamentally shitty politics. That is, the self-professed advocates of slow change are often in reality the proponents of no change. Incrementalism is just their diplomatic pretext for pacifying would-be progressive activists. Indeed in the above case, Fruchey based his argument for incrementalism on the unsupported premise that the gay-bashing occurred in response to the Out Scouts campaign; he implied the “hate crime” he chose to put in quotation marks was merely an overreaction to being “pushed”; and finally, he wrote, “Instead of trying to change the world, this community would be better off trying to change some of their strongly held beliefs. Maybe then, we will achieve peace in our time” — yet another nice way of saying: You’ll get back in the closet if you know what’s good for you, you dirty queers!

On the other hand, I’ve got no patience for the I’m-more-radical-than-you posturing that pervades so much of the US Left. Like so many appeals to incrementalism, it often serves as a substitute for actually organizing for social change. While no panacea for all that ails our activist communities, I suspect a more constructive alternative to both the dubious appeals to incrementalism and the divisive obssession with separating liberals/reformists from radicals/revolutionaries is for people of conscience to try to agree on sets of interdependent minimalist and maximalist goals, and to begin working small for bigger and bigger changes.

For more information on the Out Scouts 2002 campaign in Athens, see “Out Scouts calling for local Boy Scout official to resign,” Athens News, 2/4/02 and “Out Scouts urges support for its goal from local community members,” Athens News, 2/18/02

For more information on the student activist community’s response to the January 13 gay-bashing and two campus rapes reported the same week, see “Students, faculty deem assault prevention inadequate,” The Post 1/31/02, “University still not doing enough to protect students,” The Post 4/2/02 and “Vocal minority has issues, definitions confused,” The Post, 4/18/02. (Contrary to Fruchey’s assessment, at the time of his letter more than just the gay-bashing and Out Scouts campaign was going on in the local gay community. In addition to people taking classes, working jobs, falling in love, breaking up and myriad other things, gay people in Athens were also among those organizing for a planned student walkout and campaign for university reforms regarding campus sexual assault and anti-gay violence then underway.)

For more information on the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical views and legacy, see “The Martin Luther King you don’t see on TV” by Jeff Cohen and Normon Solomon and “Dr. King, forgotten radical” by Kai Wright. And for an excellent commentary on the parallel distortion of another celebrated African American activist, see “It’s time to free Rosa Parks from the back of the bus” by Danielle McGuire)

MLK Lessons


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