The Washington Blade
October 4, 1991
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Columbus and the New World Order
Last May in Washington, at an organizing meeting for the next National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (which was ultimately set for Spring 1993), several activists opposed scheduling a march in 1992, claiming that, among other things, it would distract from Columbus Day counter-demonstrations planned for October 1992. Boston activists Jenney Milner, Ed Hunt and Sue Hyde, in a paper entitled "No March on Washington in 1992!" wrote of Columbus Day 1992:
"It is the quincentennial of Columbus' arrival in the Americas, an event that precipitated 500 years of rape, robbery and genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and indeed, for the lands they called home. Crucial, national counterdemonstrations organized by survivors of a half millenium of racist bloodletting will be held that weekend in Washington DC. A conflicting gay/lesbian March on Washington would be senselessly distracting for pre-event organizing and event scheduling. Much worse, it represents the racism and cultural imperialism of a predominantly white movement. Many of us would find nothing joyful or proud in such shameful failure to respect another, equally important movement for survival and self-determination. Indeed, we would find it impossible to attend."
Five months after the May meeting, there is still no evidence of any such plans in the works by national American Indian groups for October 1992 other than these activists' statement. Apparently, white activists are now to be branded as racist simply for going about their business without first reading other people's minds. The hysterical tone of the Boston activists' statement, its gratuitous and hackneyed race-baiting, its frivolous charges of racism and "cultural imperialism," and its ultra-Leftist dogmatism, are another pathetic example of white activists with a guilt complex trying to outdo one another in proving their political correctness.
Setting aside their angry rhetoric, Milner et al. do have a point about the legacy of Columbus. The explorer himself stressed the potential value of the slave trade, presaging a terrible legacy of injustice. The destruction of indigenous peoples and their culture, which Columbus and his crew began, became the great holocaust of the Americas.
The history of that destruction includes the Removal Act of 1830, which led to the forced resettlement west of the Mississippi of at least 70,000 Indians who remained in the east. In the notorious "trail of tears," thousands of Cherokee died during the course of a thousand-mile march at bayonet-point.
Almost worse than these atrocities were the cynical lies that accompanied them. For example, as Peter Farb wrote in Man's Rise to Civilization, "At the very moment that these people were dying in droves, President Van Buren reported to Congress that the government's handling of the Indian problem had been 'just and friendly throughout.'"
The continued disparity between America's freedom-loving image of itself on the one hand and its behavior on the other is illustrated by the havoc it has wreaked in this hemisphere during the past century. Washington's own Cinco de Mayo riots in Mount Pleasant last spring, and our growing population of economic refugees from Central America, are a local legacy of America's interference in the affairs of its neighbors.
The sins of the conquistador, however, do not make saints of those he has conquered. In their passion to rediscover their roots, some Native American Gays overplay the superiority of their traditions. An example is the alternative gender role represented by the berdache, the subject of Will Roscoe's recent book, The Zuni Man-Woman. While recognition as "two-spirits" (possessing both male and female spirits) gave some Gays a respected social position not available in European culture, no option was available to Zuni homosexuals who did not wish to be "men-women." In fact, social nonconformity often brought charges of witchcraft, which, according to Roscoe, "represents a darker side of Zuni life." Accused witches who confessed were generally exiled, and those who refused were put to death.
No one has a monopoly on oppression. History does not offer the simplicity of a folktale, with heroes on one side and villains on the other. Columbus was a man of his time, and the magnitude of his achievement should not be obscured by mythmaking which seeks to make of him either a demigod or a devil. If the counter-demonstrators fail to respect the spirit of discovery which is honored by the Columbus holiday, they will turn an ideal occasion for education and advocacy into merely another exercise in offending popular sensibilities.
Instead of engaging in a futile battle for the supremacy of Leftist ideology, Native American activists would be wise to follow the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., and use the occasion of the Columbus quincentennial to challenge America to live up to its creed. Instead of dwelling bitterly on the evils of the past and provoking the worst in people, why not address the present and appeal to the best in people?
Regardless of whose ancestors got here first, we are all here now, many of richly mixed blood. The challenge for Americans, in deciding what kind of history we will now make, is to come to terms with our multiracial and multicultural heritage. We must learn to live together.
The future of America as a free and just nation depends upon its citizens' capacity to imagine, like Columbus, viewpoints beyond the edge of the world they know. If I cannot reach beyond my heritage to encounter yours — and if you jealously deny me the privilege — then America's great experiment in diversity has failed. The representatives and advocates of that diversity will waste a golden opportunity if they are so preoccupied with venting their anger that they drive away those who most need to hear their story.
Richard J. Rosendall is a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.