Reflections on a Morning at the White House

President Barack Obama with Jeanne Manford's daughter Suzanne Swan, who accepted the Presidential Citizens Medal on behalf of her mother. I was honored as a member of the national board of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, to be present as President Obama presented a Presidential Citizens Medal of Honor posthumously, to Jeanne Manford the founder of PFLAG. Her daughter Suzanne Swan accepted the medal on her mother's behalf. Of course, being present for this event will be a moment that Grace and I will never forget.

Grace and I, both of us in our late seventies, born in what was the racially segregated south, have known first hand the negative realities of legally sanctioned racial discrimination aided and abetted by a culture that sanctioned racial segregation as a legitimate "way of life." As I read again of how Jeanne Manford learned that her son had been beaten up at a gay rights demonstration, I thought of Grace's oldest sister and how she responded when her daughter attended and became the first black student to graduate from a previously all white high school in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Jean Hodges, Vice-President of National PFLAG Board, with Gil and Grace after the Presidential Citizens Medal ceremony at the White House.

I ask readers of this to "walk in the shoes of Grace and me" and imagine what it was like for us as senior citizen African Americans to be in the East Room of the White House with our nation's first black President, Barack Obama. We both shed tears of indescribable joy and amazement as he was elected in 2008, and those tears returned when he was re-elected in 2012. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" has become an anthem for many of us in the African American community. It has these words; "We have come over a way that with tears has been watered..." Regardless of how we view President Obama. All of us to varying degrees may differ with him on some matters. But, none of us should separate his election and presidency from our national history of slavery and racial segregation. It is because of this history that we believe his election represents the best of the "exceptional journey" that we in our nation have made and must continue to make.

Jeanne Manford responded to the assault on her gay son by writing a letter to a local newspaper and taking to the streets, to declare she loved her son, and would not put up with the nonsense of his being hurt because he was gay. My wife's sister responded with the same kind of love and courage as she supported her daughter amidst the verbal and physical violence directed at her by those who hated the idea of blacks going to school with whites.

Marilyn and Gil at Church within a Church 10-year AnniversaryMarilyn and I became co-partners in our Truth in Progress project because we felt that despite the differences, heterosexism and racism were "isms" both fed and perpetuated by prejudice, bias, bigotry and hatred. We, in our journey have discovered that too many persons who are adamant and active in their resistance to homophobic heterosexism are too often passive in their resistance to anti-black racism. And, we have discovered that too many persons who are adamant and active in their resistance to anti-black racism are too often passive in their resistance to homophobic heterosexism.

We of Truth in Progress have visited both Selma and Stonewall. Selma because of its significance in the struggle against anti-black racism in the Civil Rights Movement, and Stonewall because of its significance in the struggle against anti-gay homophobic heterosexism in the Gay Rights Movement. Marilyn and I felt in the beginnings of our effort, and feel even more strongly now, that if we do not understand and respond to the ways heterosexism, racism (and sexism) intersect, we will be unwitting accomplices to their continuation.

As I sat in the East Room of the White House as President Obama presented Presidential Citizens Medals in honor of 18 citizens, I thought of the words that Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent to Marilyn and me for Truth in Progress to share with others. We asked Archbishop Tutu to respond to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. He responded with these eloquent words describing the human family: "May you all realise that you really are all members of one family, God's family, the human family: black, white, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, lesbian, transsexual, gay, bisexual, and so-called straight all belong together in the bundle of life."

Martin Luther King Jr National MemorialAfter the White House ceremony, Grace and I visited for the first time the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. After taking pictures of the statue of Dr. King, I read the words of his that are inscribed on the walls around the statue. I searched for and found the words that have served to inspire my efforts to be an active and vocal voice challenging racism and sexism, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

I urge supporters and supporters-to-be of Truth in Progress, if you believe in the importance of identifying and developing creative ways to conquer heterosexism and racism because of the injustice they both represent, to journey with Truth in Progress as we make our unique contribution to the challenging and elimination of injustice, wherever it rears its ugly head.


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