In 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. banished Bayard Rustin from his inner circle. Rustin was a major civil rights figure and also (it was widely and correctly whispered) a gay man. According to King’s biographer, Taylor Branch, King felt he had “to avoid public accusations that he associated with a homosexual.”
If you had told King that less than a half-century after his death, the New York State Legislature would vote to legalize marriage between two people of the same sex -- and that this was the result of a social movement widely regarded as having been modeled on his own -- he might well have been perplexed, or even offended.
We like to think he would have come around. After all, millions of Americans less visionary than King have done so. The revolution in perceptions has been profound and unbelievably quick, compared with the century-long struggle of blacks in America.
In fact, the speed of the same-sex marriage movement arguably had much to do with having the civil rights movement as a role model. From its predecessor, it learned to be nonviolent, to appeal to people’s basic decency, to plot a careful legal strategy.
The marriage movement, too, was helped by hard data: In the states where it has been put in place, it has proved to be a commercial boon. Social justice, it seems, confers economic benefits.
Above all, the marriage movement has been driven by family relations (which is to say, love). It’s hard to think of someone as “other” if he or she turns out to be your son or daughter.
What civil rights and gay rights have in common is that they are both chapters in the still-unfinished American project of freedom. One after another come the claims: of blacks, of women, of Latinos, of the disabled, of gays. At first they’re met with incredulity, then formal resistance, then ultimate submission as other citizens come to realize that, “You know, these folks have a point.” And so they’re added to the list.
It’s a learning process, among other things. The typical conservative of today probably has more advanced views on homosexuality than even King had a half-century ago.
Rest assured, this process is not over. A new chapter will always be waiting to be written.
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