There are many lessons that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community’s civil rights movement can take from the American Civil Rights Movement. One is that we’re not always here to make people comfortable. In an interview by Dr. Kenneth Clark of Martin Luther King Jr., King said (emphasis added):
If anyone has ever lived with a non-violent movement in the South, from Montgomery on through the Freedom Rides and through the sit-in movement and the recent Birmingham movement, and seen the reactions of many of the extremists and reactionaries in the white community, he wouldn’t say that this movement makes, this philosophy makes them comfortable. I think it arouses a sense of shame within them often, in many instances, I think it does something to touch the conscience and establish a sense of guilt. Now so often people respond to guilt by engaging more in the guilt-evoking act in an attempt to drown the sense of guilt. But this approach certainly doesn’t make the white man feel comfortable. I think it does the other thing. It disturbs this conscience and it disturbs this sense of contentment he’s had.
It’s not like there aren’t a lot of things that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people that, just by existing, do to push comfort zones. In by being out to friends, family, and coworkers we subtlety push people out of their sense of blissful contentment — that blissful sense rooted in naiveté about the challenges we face in life because of sexual orientation or gender identity. And beyond just being out, a number of us write letters to and lobby the legislators who haven’t really become acquainted with the LGBT constituents in their districts, and change the way we as LGBT community members are perceived by broader society.
And, of course, there are the direct actions that many civil rights advocates advocated, and many members of minority populations’ community members engaged in within their own civil rights movements, that pushed society’s boundaries. LGBT community participated in a lot of that boundary pushing over the years.
Trans people, as organized both in its own community and as a subcommunity of the LGBT community…well, trans people can really push boundaries with visible existence. What it is to be male; what it is to be female; what it is to be man, woman, boy or girl — even what it is to be on the continuum between male and female — we trans people, just by existing publicly, force those questions to be considered and discussed.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people pushing for antidiscrimination and equality legislation and policy aren’t here to make broader society comfortable.
Trans people in particular, pushing for antidiscrimination and equality legislation and policy — as well as pushing for identity documentation that reflects our gender identities and access to appropriate healthcare — aren’t here to make broader society comfortable. We’re also not here to make to make LGBT community peers comfortable when many don’t believe we belong grouped with non-trans lesbian, gay, and bisexual people; the religious right comfortable with us in their bathrooms; and even not to make all trans people comfortable with all other people who as at one point in their lives were identified with the terms transgender or transsexual.
[More below the fold.]
In the Letter From The Birmingham Jail, MLK Jr. said this about the African-American Civil Rights Movement (emphasis added):
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
We don’t have to even engage in direct action to create tension. Simply by publicly existing we create a tension. But when we do more than just publicly exist — whether that be by traditional lobbying, by direct action, or in a myriad of other ways — we create tensions that with legislators and policy bureaucracy of broader society, often opening doors for meaningful negotiation to end injustices.
But when we push comfort zones, we should expect resistance and pushback from those who don’t want to leave their previously unchallenged, safe-feeling mindsets.
And it’s not just a civil rights movement or a minority population of people that experiences resistance as a whole. The individual members of a particular minority population — the perceived community members of a civil rights movement — face tremendous personal pushback. This is especially true for the individual members of a particular community perceived to be leaders in the “front of room.”
And these “front of the room” people not only experience pushback from broader society members, but often from people in their own minority population who also don’t want the status quo upset…who also don’t want to be pushed out of their comfort zones.
Well, minority populations aren’t always here to make others inside and outside that minority population comfortable with the status quo. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people aren’t always here to make others comfortable with the status quo; trans people in particular aren’t always here to make others comfortable with the status quo.
In my mind, progress towards ordinary equality means creating tension that creates societal change. That often means pushing people out of their comfort zones — whether or not pushing in a particular situation is a modest or large pushing.
Basically, if we belong to one or more minority populations — if we belong to one or more minority communities — we’re not here to make other people comfortable. We often do best for our peers and ourselves when we create even small amounts of tension. Creating the societal changes we need to have ordinary equality requires the creation of a certain amount of tension.
* Shame And Guilt