Why does the death of one man come to symbolize the deaths of so many? The injustice of justice? The despair of a people?
The LGBTQ community has had its own symbols of injustice. Dan White's "Twinkie defense" in being convicted of lesser charges in the murders of gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. The "gay panic" defenses used in the murders of countless LGBTs over the years. Sodomy convictions of consenting adults. The lack of even an arrest in the murders of thousands of transgender people across the world.
The criminal legal system has failed many people, but perhaps none more so than African Americans. Starting with legally sanctioned slavery, and moving on to various forms of legal discrimination that only broke down in recent decades, the system has mostly failed its people.
When we deal with the highly charged issues of race in this country, the problem is that there are always examples that seem to distort the overarching truth of the matter. There are always going to be ways you can say "but this African American got justice," or "this white person did not get justice." There are always going to be ways the truth can be twisted, and someone else was done wrong who was not African American.
The trick with racism is that it is rarely pure and simple racism. It can't always be documented and exposed as racism. It is usually a slippery mess based on an attempt to be logical and rational, when in fact racism is far from logical or rational. Just as homophobia and sexism are things we just "know" when we experience them, racism is something some people just understand permeates the mindset of huge numbers of Americans.
And the facts are there if we care to see them. Within the memories of this generation of living humans, there are thousands and thousands of examples in the media of racist acts by institutions, by police, by judges, by juries, by poll watchers, by politicians and more. These are offset by increasingly "color-blind" institutions and people, and more fairness in the system. But the facts are clear: racism is not dead, just as homophobia and sexism are not dead.
All of this contributed to the cauldron of controversy last weekend when George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of 17-year-old African American youth Trayvon Martin. Some people wanted to complicate this by noting that Zimmerman is in fact half-Latino, so it was "brown-on-black" crime. But the problem with racism in this country is that it is contagious, and even those who are also potentially victims of racism "catch" and hold on to the stereotypes of other disenfranchised communities.
Why does this case resonate for some in the LGBTQ community? First, many LGBTQs are also people of color, and they understand and experience racism first-hand. Second, many people are empathetic to the death of a young man with promise, who was targeted for an immutable characteristic, the color of his skin. And third, many LGBTQs understand that true coalition politics means linking arms with other communities in times of grief and struggle.
Coalition politics is a two-way street. I often hear white LGBTQs complain about a lack support from minorities when it comes to marriage equality and other issues. But many white LGBTQs do not drive on that street the other way when it comes to linking with struggles of communities of color. The value placed on alliances is much better than in the 1970s and 1980s, but we do have a long way to go to feel in true partnership. Being supportive of other causes does not mean you have to agree 100 percent or even 50 percent of the time. We ask communities of faith to be on our side about marriage even if it runs counter to their own religious teachings. We ask that they open the tent for LGBTQs simply because it is the right thing to do, even if it is in opposition to their core beliefs. We need to have the same open mind to be good partners in the civil-rights movement.
The most pernicious forms of homophobia, sexism and racism come down to a one-on-one basisand that is what doomed Trayvon Martin on the last night of his life. George Zimmerman probably still feels he is not a racist. He can claim he did not target Trayvon because of his skin color. But he did. We know it. Because every day in each of our lives, we must battle against the stereotypes society drills into us. Through media images, TV shows, movies, and more, we are bombarded with one-dimensional portrayals of people of color, of LGBTs, of women. We have to fight mighty hard to see each individual person as a person in their own right, and not representative of their whole race, their whole gender, of every LGBT person.
The year I was born, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. He said in part: "I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!"
I am now 50 years old, and have witnessed time and again people being judged by the color of their skin, by the people they love, by their gender, by their class, religion and more.
King is dead. Emmett Till is dead. Harvey Milk is dead. Matthew Shepard and Sakia Gunn and Mark Carson and Gwen Araujo and Paige Clay and so many others are dead. And now Trayvon is dead. It is 50 years past time that we judge each individual by the content of their character.
Also see LGBT groups issue open letter: Trayvon deserves justice