One more thought on the idea of homosexuality as wrong, in light of New York state's legalization of gay marriage last week. The historical perspective is useful in two ways. One is to show how things used to be. The other is to get a sense of how today is going to look when it has become history. We need both ways of looking at things in evaluating how we look at gay tolerance, gay marriage and anti-gay language today.
Let's start with the past: New York in 1929. Harlem, to be specific. It was actually a pretty gay place. Like the rest of the city, Harlem was home to countless gay bars. At the annual Hamilton Lodge drag ball, hundreds of drag queens competed for the top prize while thousands of straight Harlemites and other New Yorkers crowded in to get a look.
The "fairy," as he was termed at the time — even by gays themselves — was often sought as an emcee even at mainstream nightclub shows. Gay people were part of the scenery at the rent parties so famous now in Harlem folklore.
You catch hints from Fats Waller, who was not gay but sprinkled a camp sensibility into his routines. That "I want some seafood, mama" line of his? "Seafood" was gay slang for a sailor pickup. And what do you think he was really talking about in his song "All That Meat and No Potatoes"?
Of course homophobia was rampant as well, and it would become worse from the '30s on, when the police started clamping down on the old-time free and easy atmosphere. But even before that, it was expected that one went only so far in public.
And as far as the church was concerned, even the private sphere was not one's own business when it came to, well, those things. In November 1929, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church went on a press rampage on the subject.
Important: The Rev. Powell's son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., has always been my favorite historical civil rights leader; I've always thought he was undersung. And the church his father founded did, and has continued to do, very important things. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was a great man. But he was also a person of his times, as we all are.
And on what we would now call gay issues, he was quite proud in 1929 of his "scathing and bitter denunciation of perversion as practiced by many moral degenerates." The degenerates in question were not pedophiles or serial killers. He meant gay people. Scientific terms like "degenerate" were 1929's version of being polite about it.
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.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.