“I’m not the enemy,” defends Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the current issue of Atlanta magazine. Her comments, made in response to backlash from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates, ironically became public just days before President Barack Obama named Bayard Rustin, the openly gay advisor to Dr. King and chief organizer behind the historic March on Washington, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom–the nation’s highest civilian honor.
King, the youngest among her siblings and CEO of the King Center, has previously made headlines for saying that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.” Despite her mother Coretta Scott King’s support for LGBT equality, the ordained minister who led a protest against gay marriage with megachurch pastor Eddie Long continues to oppose equal protections for the LGBT community.
“People have labeled me homophobic,” she says in the Georgia-based publication. “If I was homophobic, I wouldn’t have friends who are gay and lesbian, so that can’t be true. But because I have a certain belief system, I am now the enemy.”
Bernice King might not be the “enemy,” but her logic is deeply flawed.
“Her comments are why there has to be a separation of church and state,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the nation’s leading black LGBT civil rights organization. “The country has gotten to the point where we’re beginning to have the conversation that black LGBT people exist; just look at new documentary The New Black and the president awarding Bayard Rustin the Medal of Freedom. It’s happening, but change is not an easy thing.”
The “I have gay friends” defense
“When I read Bernice King’s comments, I had to pause,” Lettman-Hicks says. “I thought to myself that before slavery was abolished, I am certain that many white people had the same opinion about black people being free and equal.”
Most black Americans don’t have to go back centuries to encounter a mentality that mirrors King’s sentiments. In fact, insert any marginalized minority group or identity, and you have an argument often used to remove any sort of social responsibility from anyone with access to privilege (white, male, straight, able-bodied… the list goes on).
“I’m not racist, I have black friends.”
“I’m not transphobic. I work with people that are trans.”
“Sexist? No way! My wife’s a woman.”
Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about LGBT identity, discrimination is discrimination is discrimination.
Trying to excuse prejudice as just a preference
“A lot of times what we call prejudices are preferences,” King further explained about her views. “How do you get to a place where everyone likes all vanilla ice cream or all lemon custard? They don’t.”
When the law refuses to recognize an entire group of people as human or denies countless everyday Americans equal protections, we’ve got to take a serious look at what Bernice King attempts to distinguish as just her “preference” and not a harmful prejudice.
For thousands of LGBT people, simply providing for themselves and their families is a daily hurdle because their basic human right — to be able to take care of the people they love — is being legislated based on a set of personal biases. “Preferences” such as King’s are barring people from jobs, housing, parenthood and more.
Sometimes the personal is not the political
When asked if she would marry her gay and lesbian friends, King responds, “I wouldn’t marry them. But I don’t dictate that. That’s society’s call.”
And she’s right. Here is one moment when King rightly separates church and state.
“I’m glad that King recognizes the fundamental separation between religious rites and civil rights,” explains Aisha Moodie-Mills, LGBT Policy & Racial Justice Advisor at the Center for American Progress (CAP). “She has the right to perform, or not perform, whatever ceremonies she likes in her church, just as I have the right to be treated fairly and equally under marriage laws. It is indeed ‘society’s call’ to shape these laws, and the momentum we see on LGBT rights demonstrates once again that the moral arc of the universe always bends towards justice.”