Trayvon Martin is a martyr. He died defending gay rights. Don’t agree? Then you’re a hopeless reactionary, and probably a racist and a sexist to boot. Or so you might be led to believe by reading of some of the fringier discourse attached to the Trayvon tragedy, which in recent weeks has come to represent an ever-larger fraction of all Trayvonian discourse everywhere. Perhaps you’ve noticed.
On April 9th, a group of LGBT advocacy groups issued a statement on Trayvon’s shooting, decrying the evils of prejudice. It was bland and mostly harmless. The most objectionable paragraph was this:
Trayvon’s killing is tragic and the stark reality that racial bias played a role in his death has alarmed our nation. Questions must be asked. Answers must be sought. And justice must be served. We join our voices to the chorus of so many others to demand that local and federal authorities find those answers. We stand in solidarity with Trayvon’s family and friends as they seek justice for his killing. In the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Catch the objectionable bit? If not, it may be because you’re operating under the very-understandable misapprehension that Trayvon’s geeky, emotionally disturbed killer has already been convicted of something. He hasn’t. Nor was the coalition of LGBT groups which authored the statement present on that Sanford street to witness whatever transpired between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. If it was — if a bunch of professional LGBT non-profiteers lurked in the Sanfordian bushes that ugly February night — they should quit being coy, contact the authorities, and report what they saw. Otherwise, very important details of the fatal confrontation will remain dangerously murky.
We all have our suspicions. The available evidence creates the impression that Zimmerman freaked out because he saw a black kid walking the neighborhood, that he defied the advice of a police dispatcher, and some short time later shot Trayvon Martin to death, none of which looks very good. But to condemn a man based upon suspicion is unfair and un-American. This is not a difficult point to understand. So why should the LGBT community “stand in solidarity with Trayvon’s family and friends as they seek justice,” but not stand in solidarity with George Zimmerman’s equally distressed family and friends as they seek (one hopes) the same thing? Alternately, what’s the point of saying “questions must be asked” when the most substantive questions — Who’s guilty? And of what? — have already been answered to the authors’ satisfaction?
The statement’s existence is largely redeemed by its timing (it was written before George Zimmerman was arrested), and its flaws, unfortunate as they are, are rendered toothless by the fact that the world neither wants nor needs to know what LGBT non-profiteers think about Trayvon’s shooting. Trayvon’s death did not result from homophobia. Trayvon’s thoughts on LGBT rights, if he had any, have gone un-documented. And while gayfolk understandably and correctly despise prejudice, it is not yet established that Trayvon was killed by prejudice. Until we know otherwise, gay activists’ opinions of the tragedy are precisely as relevant as those of the Humane Society or Covenant House.
That will all change if Zimmerman turns out to be be a racial-profiler, as writer Kevin Naff discussed in an article entitled “All Aboard The Trayvon Bandwagon” in the Washington Blade — but until the question of Zimmerman’s motivation has been settled, pundits seeking to draw a moral from the tragedy would do well to hew closely to the facts. The facts involve one teenaged NBA fan, one antsy neighborhood watchman, one iced tea, one bag of Skittles, and — this is the crucial bit — one gun. From the Blade:
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida last month was yet another tragic reminder that our nation’s lax gun laws must be overhauled if we are to stem the endless tide of senseless killings that plague our country.
Roughly 30,000 Americans die each year due to gun violence, including homicides, suicides and accidental shootings, according to the CDC, yet gun control remains a taboo, third-rail subject.
Instead of prompting a national dialogue and soul-searching on this important topic, the reaction to the shooting of Martin by a neighborhood watch patrolman, George Zimmerman, has focused instead on questions of racial bias …
In other words, a provable and demonstrably true point about guns and Florida law is brushed aside in favor of a supposed and potentially true point about prejudice, presumably because the latter makes better politics. After decrying this, as well as the general hysteria which has attended Traysanity (exemplified by the irresponsible tweeting of George Zimmerman’s parents’ home address by alleged comedian Roseanne Barr), Naff writes:
LGBT rights groups, along with celebrities and civil rights activists, should do what Zimmerman failed to do and exercise some self-restraint. The Martin case is in the hands of a special prosecutor who could bring charges as early as this week against Zimmerman. A grand jury is expected to convene Tuesday. Let’s hear from the experts and investigators before rushing to judgment and issuing our politically correct press releases. Did Martin attack Zimmerman and break his nose? What is the full transcript of the 911 call? Did the dispatcher order Zimmerman not to follow Martin?
The Martin case is a tragedy and a clear indictment of Florida’s draconian “stand your ground” law that has so far shielded Zimmerman from arrest. But portraying Martin as a hate crime martyr is premature and irresponsible.
Please note, this is not the same as denying that Trayvon is a “hate crime martyr.” Nor is it saying that racism and homophobia aren’t two faces of a common enemy, which they plainly are. Rather, it’s saying: Wait for the evidence. Breathe, don’t hyperventilate. Think before you speak.
Unfortunately, waiting, breathing, and thinking are not parts of the modern mediamaker’s skill set. Akiba Solomon, writing four days after Naff on the daily news site ColorLines, proved the point in a mind-bogglingly beside-the-point screed in which she attacked Naff’s “white male privilege”:
… even if [Naff] can’t fathom, say, a Bayard Rustin, he can certainly use his journalistic skills (aka, Google) to uncover evidence that LGBT struggles are inextricably tied to racial justice struggles …
I don’t know Kevin Naff so I’m not going to accuse him of pandering to angry white males. But I know this much is true: LGBT organizations belong in the conversation about racial profiling. No amount of his seething white male privilege masquerading as gun control advocacy can change that fact.
Note the last line, with its telling use of the word “masquerade” and the out-of-nowhere use of the word “male.” Unless Solomon mis-typed, she is accusing Kevin Naff of masquerading as a citizen concerned about firearm proliferation and the stand-your-ground law so that he may surreptitiously go about his real work — venting anger toward black people and women.
Yes, women. Otherwise, the word “male” in Solomon’s paragraph is meaningless. Note that Naff never mentioned sex or gender in his article. The presence of the word “male” in Solomon’s says less about Naff’s opinions than it does about a common pitfall of identity politics: Get too far in, and you start piling cant atop cant until the accumulated weight crushes whatever good point you began with.
Giving Solomon the benefit of the doubt, I’ll suppose her good point was something like this: Prejudice against black people exists. Prejudice against gay people exists. Some gay people are also black people. And prejudice against anyone, anywhere — be they gay, black, female, small-statured, Shriner, large-footed, Republican, whathaveyou — is an injustice against all people, everywhere. And — here I’m extrapolating — should George Zimmerman be found guilty of racial profiling, the world will have yet further evidence that prejudice is a problem.
There’s the rub, though. The world needed no further evidence that prejudice is a problem. It’s well understood. Less commonly understood is the fact that the most pervasive prejudice has little to do with skin color, sex, or sexual orientation. Rather, it’s the prejudice against dissent — against those with the gall to disagree with our most deeply cherished ideas about the world. We assume they’re criminal or racist or mean-spirited or greedy, when in fact they might only be differently informed. It is this prejudice which keeps Palestinians from speaking meaningfully with Israelis and vice versa, and which keeps watchers of MSNBC from profitably communicating with watchers of FOX. Skepticism, a love of evidence, and a mistrust of emotionalism can go a long way toward curbing that prejudice and all others, while simultaneously keeping our discourse securely on the rails — without, say, press-ganging dead black boys into culture wars they never consented to join. And without resorting to ad hominem attacks whenever someone writes something that angers us.