Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Equality with "order and dignity"

One must be extremely careful in making connections between the Civil Rights Movement and the GLBT rights movement. I spoke about this topic at UT-Martin earlier this year during their week long celebration of of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I found myself trying to be clear about the connections while adding dozens of qualifying statements. It's important to try respect the difference in historical events without lazily assimilating them to the present. Despite the differences, I find that I am drawn to the Civil Rights Movement and all that preceded it for instructive clues on the way forward.

I've been reading Paul Conkin's The Southern Agrarians, a monograph on the literary and political movement that emerged from the friendships of a group of men with ties to Vanderbilt. Usually described with a dismissive blanket conservative label, the Agrarians were obviously not free market fans. And while they had an appreciation for fundamentalism, their socially conservative stance differed in its sources and details from fundamentalism as it was then and is today. They are also remembered as segregationists, but there were fissures in the group on this very point. Conkin highlights the disagreement by pointing to the debate between Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. In opposition to Davidson, who was a convinced segregationist, Tate argued that the "South should take over the process of desegregation and do it with 'order and dignity.' "

It's not clear how history might have been different if Tate's advice had been followed by state and local governments throughout the region. We get glimpses of it in Governor Frank Clement's decision not to oppose court ordered integration. His leadership is credited with Tennessee's comparatively peaceful transition to greater racial equality, though Tennessee was not spared violent detours along the way.

I think Tate's argument is relevant. Just as Tate saw integration as inevitable, I think most if not all of the legal forms of equality that our community is working for will be achieved. The questions are how long and what methods. Based on the analysis of the Williams Institute at UCLA, one is forced to conclude that either the number of same-sex couples is increasing rapidly in the South or that they are being increasingly open about their relationships. I think the path ahead is either one of gradual accommodation by state and local governments to these realities or a long build up to controversial decisions by the courts.

Tate's equality with "order and dignity" would mean that the South would have to own GLBT issues as native to the citizens, families, and institutions of the region, not as an alien force out to destroy the particularity and vitality of the region. For now, the resistance remains strong.

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