What the Harlem Renaissance Teaches About Gay Rights
Polite dissent on same-sex marriage today may seem bigoted decades from now.
Powell considered this "perversion" to be "one of the most horrible, debasing, alarming and damning vices of present-day civilization." He decried "contact and association" with gay people, considered them a threat to the "Negro family." He hated homosexuality for "causing men to leave their wives for other men, wives to leave their husbands for other women and girls to mate with girls instead of marrying."
Now, 80-plus years later, how informed, how progressive, does this rhetoric look? I assume that some today read Powell as telling a truth that still needs to be told. But to just as many of us and likely more, even with reservations about homosexuality, these statements by Powell look quaint, retrograde, overwrought and, frankly, mean. They look like sentiments from another time, one we are thankful to be past.
But here's where it's time to imagine today as history. Just as calling gay people degenerates and perverts was then the civil alternative to hurling the f-word with six letters, today's polite expression of anti-gay bigotry is to soberly "not condone" homosexuality or gay marriage. The difference from Powell's views is only a matter of degree.
And we can't discount degree here. Many hotly insist that even if racism doesn't pervade black lives to the same degree as it once did, it's still one of America's most urgent problems. If you think so, then it means that no one gets a pass for quietly "not condoning" homosexuality as opposed to calling gay people degenerates. It's all on a continuum of the same thing.
And the question about this modern version of Adam Clayton Powell Sr.'s sentiments is, how will it look when it, too, is history? The question is especially important for the more open-minded, who see their views on gay people as "changing." Think of yourself as tomorrow's history.
To wit: Most of us would agree that Powell now looks like a person of a distant time in his take on homosexuality. But look at how quickly things are changing today, with gay marriage increasingly approved of; more and more gay celebrities coming out -- the likely gay ones not doing so looking increasingly behind the curve; gay people a normal part of popular entertainment narratives; etc.
Think about where things will clearly be in, say, 2090. And then consider: If, here in 2011, you think that gay people shouldn't get married, and/or that what they do is "wrong" and/or that it's OK for comedians to rag on "faggots," then you might consider what your views will look like in 80 years -- especially if you're inclined to record them for posterity in comments sections and on Twitter!
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.