Revisiting King’s Dream

Tamura Lomax

Tamura Lomax says that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s complex and provocative dream would have allowed for a nuanced position on reproductive rights.

This week will mark the anniversaries of two very important phenomena: today commemorates the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tomorrow marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Significantly, both King and Roe v. Wade represent aspects of the civil rights manifold-one emphasizing the personhood of all humanity regardless of race and the other insisting upon one's right to choice despite gender.

Ironically, the battleground for civil rights based on race and gender remains under social and political occupation. Personhood is still selective and women continue to fight for the right to make their own choices, specifically with regard to reproduction. To be clear, there has been progress, however, not enough. Disturbingly, many still believe (women included) that women's reproductive organs are somehow public and political, not private or personal, matters.

On this note, I will submit that America still has much to learn from Dr. Kings "dream" which has yet to be fully realized. To be sure, King's "dream" was more than the hope for an ideal culture of nice where everyone gets along just for the hell of it. That's definitely not what I am talking about. And, let's be clear, King was nobody's feminist. In fact, it is well documented that King was considerably sexist and patriarchal. So, that's not what I mean either.

To be honest, if alive today I am not exactly sure where King would stand on the issue of reproductive rights. King was a dialectical thinker. Thus, he could be both pro life and choice concomitantly, taking what he needed from one side or the other and rejecting the rest, and thus forcing the rest of us to consider the possible "good" on all sides as well as the inconsistencies of our own positions. It is for this very reason that I think King's "dream" is still useful. However, to get at King's ideas beyond the sound bites, one must be willing to demystify King first.

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So, forget holding hands with white people while singing "Kumbaya" (nothing against this, by the way-but this is NOT a means to an end) for a moment. This is a distortion of King's "dream." The demystification process necessitates a look at King's "unsanitized" "dream." The one that was radically complex and intensely biting. The one that provocatively challenged the status quo by holding America accountable for not living up to its democratic ideals of freedom, justice and equality for everyone-ideals which King himself had difficulty living up to in his personal life. The one that was never black and white or static.

King was a Personalist – distinguishing between moral laws and social codes, he believed (in theory at least) dignity, respect, choice, equality and subjectivity were the moral rights of all human beings. However, these rights were stymied by social codes, which led to all sorts of disparities, including but not limited to racial and economic injustice, which King argued were morally evil.

Thus, King's "dream" was a public censure of America's inconsistent and contradictory status quo, not a plea to overlook differences and disparities for the sake of avoiding conflict. His goal was not that of unaccountable justice. In fact, justice necessitated conscientious disobedience to injustice, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, in the forty years since King's death, this message has in many ways been obscured.

King's message of radical and absolute justice has been frustratingly exploited and commoditized, sublimated for a dream of simplistic pseudo-camaraderie. Thus, instead of fulfilling the "dream," we have shamefully sabotaged his social and moral legacy. However, if we really believe in Kings "dream" and we want to make it come alive, there is hope (no pun intended). King offers us a guide to realizing a better America-one that courageously calls America out on its myriad shortcomings.

Thus, while King was not a feminist, I imagine if he were alive he would be standing within the trenches with those of us who continue to fight compassionately for radical and absolute justice for all people. Despite what the sound bites say, King's "dream" was fluid. His ideas of justice and equality were constantly broadening and becoming more radical. Maybe I am an idealist, but I believe King would have eventually recognized and critiqued even his own inconsistencies, thus modifying his "dream" to be radically inclusive, regardless of difference.

Perhaps this is my "dream." I actually do believe that King would stand in solidarity with women and men across the globe tomorrow in honor of the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. While he might sit uncomfortably with some aspects of reproductive rights (and would challenge us to do the same), I believe King would view reproductive rights as women's moral right and not a political pact through which civil patriarchy can be enacted. I imagine King might also criticize pro-lifers for fighting for the rights of the unborn but yet aborting the rights of the born through the denial of equal access to education, security, healthcare, etc. However, on the flip side, King might also criticize the use of abortion as a method of birth control. Again, King was a fluid and dialectical thinker-many considerations went into the formation of his ethical judgments, a primary consideration was context.

Overall, I think King would be a supporter of women's right to choose. Choice understood in light of the preference of the choosing subject is a basic condition of freedom. King saw freedom as a moral right. Thus, King was on the side of freedom. However, freedom can be complex. Thus, King would have likely challenged the idea of subjectivity as it relates to the freedom of choice of all subjects involved, thus forcing us to sit with the possible tensions of our choices and one's moral right to choose.

In the end I think King would have upheld women's right to privacy and their right to make decisions about their bodies without interference. However, not without considering context and troubling the waters of each opposing side first. If alive, King would have challenged us to dream beyond our circumstances while forcing America to live up to its ideals of radical and absolute freedom, justice and equality for everyone in spite of difference, of course.

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

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