A Response to Amos’s Sermon

BY JEFFREY PAIK

In last week’s Record, Amos Jones wrote that Lambda’s use of the term “sit-in” in publicizing its October 12 rally against discrimination in the military was “racially offensive” and a “flippant appropriation of the civil rights movement,” and part of a longer history of Lambda “promoting…its events with disingenuous black-history pegs” (“Amos’s Sermon: On Carter G. Woodson and the Lambda-Sponsored ‘Sit-In'”). I write in response individually (not on behalf of the organization) to explain Lambda’s use of the term, but also to question some of Mr. Jones’s assertions in his opinion piece.

A “sit-in,” by the definition that Mr. Jones provides, is a “form of direct action that involves one or more persons nonviolently occupying an area for protest, often for political, social, or economic change” (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sit-in). Lambda’s demonstration would fit within this limited definition – members and allies nonviolently occupied the aisles of the Harkness Commons Dining Room in order to draw attention to the exclusion of LGBT students from military employment and from protection under HLS’s non-discrimination policy, in the hopes of encouraging the University to take action on behalf of its students. However, Mr. Jones correctly notes that sit-ins (which have been employed in diverse contexts such as the Indian independence movement, the American civil rights movement, Vietnam war protests, and more recently even by Harvard undergraduates in the 2001 Living Wage campaign) generally involve occupying the area until arrest or until the protesters’ requests have been satisfied. Lambda’s demonstration took all of 30 minutes, and thus may have matched a sit-in in form but not in duration or execution. It would perhaps most appropriately be termed a “performance protest.”

The term “sit-in” was misapplied and potentially misleading, especially considering the common understandings that are attached to the term and its pivotal role not only in American history but in global social movements as well. Lambda should not have called its demonstration a “sit-in” if it was not a sit-in as commonly understood, but rather a variation or a lesser form. I can only attribute the use of the term to oversight and a lapse in clear thinking. On this point, Mr. Jones and I are in agreement.

However, in stating his argument Mr. Jones unfortunately made a series of confusing and offensive generalizations that I feel compelled to address. First, Mr. Jones described the rally as being “co-sponsored by Lambda and a long list of other white organizations.” As an Asian-American, and as the co-president of an organization whose board alone contains members of Latino and African-American heritage, to say nothing of its general membership, I was surprised to learn that Lambda and the seventeen student groups who chose to co-sponsor the rally (including the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, the Journal of Law and Gender, and the Student Public Interest Network) were considered “white” organizations by Mr. Jones (it should be noted that Lambda invited all student organizations to co-sponsor, but that these seventeen “white” groups were the only ones willing to do so). This displays either an offensive lack of care in his choice of words, or Mr. Jones believes that he has the prerogative to define the racial identities of HLS’s student organizations on their behalf. Unfortunately for him, he does not.

Second, I find disingenuous Mr. Jones’ assertion that Lambda lacks credibility as a “supposedly activist organization” because it does not regularly engage in confrontational battles with authority as he believes a true “activist” organization should. As a preliminary point, Lambda has never made pretense of being an “activist” organization; its mission is solely to serve the interests of LGBT students at the law school – social, political, and academic. Any aspirations to an “activist” identity would appear to be an unwarranted projection on Mr. Jones’ part. Mr. Jones then states: “the truth is that Lambda on this campus rarely gambles through confronting authority in an activist manner, apparently because the stakes are just not high enough to act up for real.” I’d respond that in fact no student organization on this campus engages in the types of activism envisioned by Mr. Jones. Why not? For better or worse, the dominant form of political action at Harvard Law School is participation in legal discourse and the legal process, often at the highest levels of power. That law students largely speak to and employ the law to effect change does not mean that they do not consider the stakes to be “high enough”; often the exact opposite is the case. Perhaps Mr. Jones wishes to bemoan generally the lack of confrontational activism among Harvard law students, but if so, why single out Lambda for this particular strand of criticism?

Mr. Jones concludes his piece by questioning Lambda’s appropriation of language from black history in advocating for equality in the military (specifically a poster allegedly quoting President Truman’s 1948 executive order integrating the military), and states that “the gay issue is quite unlike that of blacks.” In support, he makes the confusing statement that “many white homosexuals were and are fully integrated into the military.” I must assume he means to say that a homosexual soldier who faces the ever-present risk of dishonorable discharge for the discovery of his or her sexual orientation under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy should nonetheless be considered “fully integrated” into the military ranks. This is one of the oddest definitions of integration that I have yet encountered, and I can only respond that I have always understood integration to require more than the simple presence of minorities within previously exclusive institutions, but also respect and protection for their status as minorities (and Mr. Jones apparently agrees based on the anecdotes he provides of discrimination against blacks in the armed forces). This respect and protection has not existed, and still does not exist, for homosexual military personnel.

But perhaps comparing and rating the discriminatory experiences of one group versus another is a fruitless and self-destructive exercise – it prevents minorities from focusing on their shared interests and grievances. For example, the interests of the gay and black community are not necessarily so separate on the issue of HLS’s suspension of its non-discrimination policy for military recruiters. Mr. Jones may be surprised to learn that HLS’s current non-discrimination policy does no more to forbid race discrimination in the military in 2005 than it would have in 1947. When HLS suspended its non-discrimination policy with respect to military recruiters, it suspended its entire policy. That the military discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation and not on other characteristics should be of scant comfort to those who believe that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Despite these shared interests, is it inappropriate for the LGBT community to reference black history and the civil rights movement in its own appeals for non-discrimination? I can only say that if Mr. Jones truly believes in the value of all individuals informing themselves of black history, as he claims, then he should be wary of denying the underlying lessons of the civil rights movement to other groups, other cultures, other nations even that seek to learn from and build upon past struggles. I believe it is a sign of the black civil rights movement’s central importance in history and its role as a model paradigm for social change that minority groups – not only gays and lesbians, but the disabled, religious minorities, women, groups to come, groups that have not yet recognized that they are groups – reference its leaders and its defining moments in their own searches for equality.

Jeffrey Paik is a 3L and a co-president of HLS Lambda.

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