Keith Boykin, a former special adviser to President Clinton, spoke at Mitten Hall last Monday evening about the intersection and acceptance of racial and sexual identities in America. He lectured, answered questions and held a book signing in honor of October as Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Awareness month.
Boykin is the author of One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America; Daily Reflections for Black Lesbians and Gays; and the soon to be released Beyond the Downlow: Sex and Denial in Black America. The lecture was sponsored by Rainbow Pride Alliance, Main Campus Program Board, Student Activities, Women’s Studies, African American Studies, the Religion Department, Jewish Studies, and the Intellectual Heritage Department.
Boykin first addressed the issue of HIV transmission and who is most affected.
“Ninety-nine percent of African American adults know how HIV is transmitted,” Boykin said. However, he referred to studies showing that black women make up two-thirds of all new HIV cases, and HIV is the leading cause of death among African Americans age 18 to 25.
“Knowing the right thing to do is not the same thing as doing it,” he offered. According to Boykin, the problem is that people know they should use condoms and get tested to protect themselves, but just do not. Boykin stressed the importance of taking these measures even when in a monogamous relationship.
“Personal responsibility will stop the spread of HIV,” he said.
Boykin next talked about his personal struggles and the experience of realizing he was gay. Throughout his life, Boykin dealt with repressed feelings of sexuality and finally began to come to terms with them in law school. He picked up the book Gay Men in their Development and read all of it on the same night he took it from the library.
“Immediately I knew the book was talking to me,” Boykin said. When he told his mother he was gay, he remembers her response of complete silence. “I realized it was very, very difficult to come out,” he said. “It really makes a difference if you can stand up and be who you are.”
Boykin discussed his college career at Dartmouth College in the 1980s, when he protested for a more diverse student body. When he graduated in 1987, he decided to join Michael Dukakis’ campaign for president because it was something his heart told him to do. No one understood why he would take a job that paid only $250 per week before taxes, but he saw the value of taking a risk. Boykin said that we often do not do what we want, but we do what others expect us to do because we want to be loved.
“We are taught to do good things, so we can be deserving of love…but everyone deserves love,” Boykin said.
After Dukakis lost the election in 1988, Boykin taught social studies for a brief period, and attended Harvard Law School.
Although the student body at Harvard was diverse, Boykin and other concerned students wanted to see more diverse representation in the faculty. He led sit-ins at the dean’s and president’s offices for more diversity. His pursuits became high-profile when the Boston Globe printed a photograph of Boykin sprinting across Harvard’s campus to catch the dean running away from questions. Boykin reflects on the photo as a depiction of power versus powerlessness.
“There is value to challenging those that are high and mighty,” he stressed.
When Boykin finished law school, he pursued his interest in politics again. He worked for the Clinton campaign in 1992, and was appointed as a special advisor to the president when Clinton was elected.
He compared the current controversy about gay marriage to the controversy about gays serving openly in the military, as well as black and white integration in the military. Boykin pointed out the similarity in the arguments against gay marriage and black and white military integration: God.
According to Boykin, people claim God is opposed to two people of the same sex being married, just as they claimed that God did not intend for blacks and whites to serve in the military together in the 1940s. Boykin said that using God to support ignorance is wrong, and makes for an invalid argument, especially in this secular country.
“Protect religion from government and government from religion,” he added.
Boykin discouraged the use of “bumper-sticker rationalization” such as “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” He said religion should not simply justify beliefs, but should help us understand others and bring us together, not divide us further.
In order to distinguish the difference between sexual orientation from sexual behavior, Boykin asked for a show of hands of people who thought they had a sexual orientation, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or otherwise. Nearly everyone in the crowd raised a hand. When he asked who thought they were engaged in sex at the moment, not one person raised a hand.
“Sexual behavior and sexual orientation are not the same because sexual orientation exists regardless of behavior,” he said. Boykin emphasized that knowing behavior is different than orientation is critical to understanding issues of gays in the military and gay marriage.
A young woman asked Boykin how he felt about gay and lesbian couples as parents. Boykin responded that it is important for children to have good parents. He said he knows straight and gay couples that would not make good parents, and he knows couples that would. One’s capacity to be a parent is “not rooted in sexual orientation,” he said.
As Boykin concluded, he asked how many people in the audience planned on voting. About half the room, 20 to 25 people, raised hands. He advised the audience to remember that the stakes are high in the upcoming election, and voting is important.
“We have a responsibility to learn the world around us,” he said. “We have the power to change things.”
Kristin Maranki may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org