Progress on social issues, like beauty in the stereotypical phrase, is in the eye of the beholder.
One has only to think of Malcolm X’s response, when asked in early 1964 about whether there had been progress in race relations in the United States.
Speaking for the first time after his 90-day ban following his comments on President Kennedy’s assassination, he responded as follows:
“I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out three inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, there’s no progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made, and they haven’t even begun to pull the knife out, let alone heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
X’s comments came after the historic March on Washington in August 1963, a gathering President Barack Obama described in his recent inaugural address as being comprised of 250,000 “men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” (Check out the section beginning at 13:44 to hear this section.)
Many heralded the day and King’s oration as landmark events in American history, but X held a far more skeptical view.
I thought of his words and the question of how to evaluate progress this past week in regards to the rights of, and attitudes toward, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans in the arenas of sport and politics.
Let’s look at sports first.
We had EJ Johnson, the son of hoops legend Magic Johnson, coming out as gay and walking down the street with his boyfriend in Southern California.
In a lengthy interview with TMZ, Johnson talked both about how much he and his wife Cookie backed their son’s decision-I’m behind him one million percent, he declared-and how they have helped him deal with some of the negative comments that have been posted on African-American blogs.
The interview went viral, and Kobe Bryant was among many who expressed his support for Magic and the Johnson family. It’s easy for critics to dismiss many of the gestures Bryant makes, and it is true that he’s had his own evolution from a homophobic slur user in 2011 to a denouncer of those same terms being directed at him by a Twitter user in February.
Also in basketball, Rutgers coach Mike Rice was summarily fired, one day after a video surfaced on ESPN’s Outside the Lines showing him abusing his players by, among many things throwing basketballs at them, pushing them and hurling homophobic epithets at them.
The next day, the school’s athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned as a result of his having taken what the university deemed was insufficient punitive action in response to having seen the tape several months earlier.
The stand by the university that homophobia was among the unacceptable actions sparked no protest.
Finally, in football, Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo told the Baltimore Sun that as many as four NFL players could break a barrier by coming out publicly at the same time.
The Huffington Post noted that Ayanbadejo t has been in the news during the past year at least as much for his staunch support of marriage equality and gay rights as for his on-field performance.
Thus far, no NFL player has come out publicly during his career.
This all occurs at a time when gay marriage ballots passed in three states in November, when the state of Illinois is considering a similar measure, when the issue came before the Supreme Court in a potentially landmark case and when Sen. Mark Kirk became the second Republican senator to endorse gay marriage.
They occur comes months after President Obama referred in his inaugural address as our gay brothers and sisters.
At the same time, as heartening as these developments may be, it is unlikely that Malcolm X would call them progress.
Just as the dismantling of legal apartheid during the modern civil rights movement revealed the next and deeper challenge of gaining full financial equality, so, too, does the lived reality for far too many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered fall short of the lofty promises articulated in our founding documents.
Consider the number of states that ban gay marriage or define the institution as the union of a man and a woman (Hint: it’s a lot higher than the nine states that have gone in the other direction.).
Think of how, for many young people, homophobic statements are still an acceptable form of hatred.
And think about the thousands of people who are still subject to hate crimes based on their sexual orientation.
In short, think of the lived reality that presents a series of taunts, stresses, discrimination and even physical danger solely because of people’s sexual orientation.
At the same, last week’s events are not meaningless.
To paraphrase Malcolm X, the knife may not be all the way out.
But many people have acknowledged that it’s there and it appears to be moving in the right direction.
We will watch with interest.