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Would Martin Luther King Jr. Have Fought For Gay Rights?


Dr. King At Press Conference
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s little doubt that the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. was far ahead of his time. He waged an urgent fight for civil rights when white America told people of color to wait patiently for change to come. He protested the Vietnam War and fought for income equality when neither of these actions were trendy. And during a time when homosexuality was largely regarded as a disorder of sorts, King included an openly gay man among his group of advisors. Taken collectively, does this information mean that King would’ve supported gay rights had he lived to see the 21st century? Many believe he would have.

No Anti-Gay Record

p>Given that homosexuality remained a largely taboo subject in the mid 20th century, it’s difficult to find public statements King made about gays and lesbians. There is at least one, however. Michael Long’s book, I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, features how the minister responded to a closeted youth who wrote to King about how to handle his same-sex attraction. At the time, 1958, King penned an advice column for Ebony magazine. The boy asked him, “I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don't want my parents to know about me. What can I do?”

King didn’t call the boy a sinner or otherwise disparage him. Instead, he told the youth that his feelings weren’t unusual. He did seem to regard the boy’s feelings as a problem, though. King remarked, “The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.”

Of course, during King’s lifetime the medical community did regard homosexuality as a problem. Homosexuals received treatment for their “problem,” so it’s not surprising that King viewed the issue through this lens. What stands out is that King didn’t condemn the boy nor did he view homosexuality to be such a problem that he excluded gay people from his circle of confidants.

King’s Gay Advisor

The gay community in the United States was largely disheartened when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney allowed Richard Grenell, his openly gay foreign policy and national security spokesman to resign due to the objections of the religious right. Five decades earlier, however, the Rev. Martin Luther King allowed an openly gay civil rights activist named Bayard Rustin to serve as his advisor. Rustin played a pivotal role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington and other seminal events during the civil rights movement. Although King reportedly received criticism for aligning himself so closely with an out gay man, he didn’t bow to their prejudice.

King’s Contemporaries Have Backed Gay Rights

During King’s day, terms such as marriage equality and gay rights had yet to enter mainstream America’s lexicon. Moreover, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which put the struggle for gay rights on the national stage for the first time, took place the year after King’s assassination. In short, King likely never pondered gay rights in the same way he pondered rights for poor people or for racial minorities. Had he lived to old age, he very well may have come out in support of gay rights. His contemporaries certainly have.

The late Coretta Scott King announced her support of gay marriage in 2004, two years before her death. She remarked during a speech at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, “Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights activist who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, openly backed marriage equality in May 2012. “Frankly, I couldn’t imagine myself denying a right to my neighbor, my fellow citizen, that I enjoy myself,” he said during an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC. “I don’t think you can say we believe in equal rights for some people, but not for others. I think that’s what they call an oxymoron. If you believe in equal rights, you help grant them to all of the people. …Basically it’s a civil-rights issue. It’s under the law that we have the right to affect a union, a covenant, a relationship, a marriage if you will, between two consenting people.”

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