MLK memorial, years inthe making, resonates withLGBT community
By DIONNE WALKER
When a tribute to the Rev. Martin LutherKing, Jr. is dedicated this weekend, itwill mark more than the addition of anew monument to Washington, D.C.’slandscape.It will symbolize the civil rights leader’ssuccess.The stone likeness rises as the ﬁrstmonument to a man of color on theNational Mall, 48 years after Kingdescribed his then ground-breakingdream, and in a nation where — at leastostensibly — much of that dream hasbeen realized.The movement was a model forcountless others, including the LGBTrights push, which has shared nonviolencetenets and even leaders like gay, blackactivist Bayard Rustin. Yet most similarities end there.While fruits of the civil rights movementare evident in modern America —apparent in a widening black middle classand a black ﬁrst family in the White House,for instance — the gay rights movement’ssuccesses have been slower coming.Same-sex marriage rights remaintenuous and limited to a handful of states;despite hate crime legislation, the threatof violence continues to deny many gaysand lesbians a basic sense of safety in theirhometowns.As the nation prepares to welcomeKing to the National Mall, communityleaders share their outlook on the LGBTmovement with the Washington Blade —from a California group using civil unrestto humanize the struggle; to the partner of late gay and civil rights icon Bayard Rustinworking to keep his ideals alive; to formerNAACP leader Julian Bond, who uses hisstatus as a key historic civil rights ﬁgureto promote the LGBT rights struggle as amodern civil rights ﬁght.They point to entrenched faith-basedbigotry, and even a lack of movementcohesion, as obstacles. But each believesthat by using King’s model of continuedstruggle, the LGBT dream of full equalitycan be achieved.
Images of change
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting inan Alabama jail cell. Fireﬁghters batteringblacks with powerful jets of water. Jeeringwhites pouring condiments over theheads of stoic lunch counter protesters.They’re images that moved activistRobin McGehee, as a child growing up inJackson, Miss.And today as executive director of GetEqual, she organizes demonstrationsto create actions and images she hopes willdrive home the plight of gay and lesbianmen and women just as powerfully. Anabsence of such visual tools encouragedMcGehee to form the group, with ofﬁcesin Berkeley, Calif., and Washington, D.C.,in January 2010.“We had that in reference to the AIDSmovement in ACT-UP, and ﬁghting foradequate health care. But in reference toa full civil rights ﬁght for equality, I couldn’tthink of one iconic action,” she said.The group has orchestrated more than40 actions in the last year, including onein which military veterans handcuffedthemselves to the White House fence toprotest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”The group honed use of such actions atthe Highlander Research and EducationCenter, a New Market, Tenn., center thattrained members of the original civil rightsmovement. McGehee and other LGBTequality activists underwent training at thehistoric center in January 2010.“Not until you can give literal imageryto that discrimination do people reallyresonate or get it,” McGehee said. Yet despite mirroring the earliermovement’s successful tactics, activists’success in mainstreaming LGBT rightsremains light years behind that of racialequality — something McGehee blameson entrenched religious bigotry.“We’ve gotten into a moment wherepeople are using the Bible as a weapon,”said McGehee, pointing out that whilereligious rhetoric once justiﬁed slaveryand racism, cultural changes eventuallyerased such thinking. “... I don’t thinkwe’ve jumped that hurdle with regard togays.”McGehee is encouraged, however, bymore subtle success in incorporating gaysand lesbians socially. Just a few years afterEllen DeGeneres thought twice aboutcoming out on TV, realistic portrayals of gays and lesbians are common on TV.“In time,” she said, “I think we’re gonnaget there.”
A life of service
Walter Naegle had certainly heardof Bayard Rustin, the relentlessly activecivil rights agitator who gained as muchnotoriety for his efforts to win blackequality as for his open homosexuality.But on the day he ran into the civil rightslegend on a New York City corner in April1977, he didn’t recognize him: Rustinwasn’t carrying his trademark walkingstick.“When he gave me his name, I knew,”said Naegle, whose chance meeting withRustin lead to a 10-year relationship thatended only when the activist died in 1987.More than two decades later, Naeglekeeps Rustin’s ideals alive, working withﬁlmmakers to promote “Brother Outsider,”a portrayal of Rustin’s story, executing hisestate and generally overseeing the use of his image.He believes Rustin’s courage, opennessand tireless work — he was in his 70sand still agitating when he died — havehelped make him resonate as an icon of the human rights movement.By the time Naegle met Rustin, theactivist had long been a legend. Rustinhad worked with A. Philip Randolph tostrengthen relationships between blacksand labor unions, but was perhaps bestknown for his role organizing the 1963March on Washington.He’d also become a gay rights iconbefore it was fashionable: Rustin wasessentially outed in 1953 when he wasarrested on a “morals charge,” yet herefused to deny the charges or his sexualorientation.“He didn’t have to hide anything,” hesaid. “He was just going to be who he wasand let the chips fall where they may.”Rustin would pay the price for thatopenness.
A dream fulﬁlled
02 • AUGUST 26, 2011 COVER STORY:NATIONAL NEWS
The civil rights movement pioneered by
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR
., has inspired manyleaders of the LGBT movement.
WASHINGTON BLADE PHOTO BY MICHAEL KEY
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