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Thelma Glass Has Died; Lessons from Her Life

Thelma Glass (David Campbell/Alabama State University)

Professor Thelma Glass of Alabama State University has died. She was a principal organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the nonviolent action which propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. to world prominence. She was 96. Go here to read her inspiring story in The New York Times.

I want to focus on a detail we often overlook: people like Rosa Parks weren’t just forced to sit in the back of the bus. One hears that phrase so commonly these days that its meaning is weak tea.

Instead Blacks were told, “Sit in the back and give up your seat to a White person.”

Male, female, it didn’t matter; any White person. An able-bodied kid, even one who couldn’t sit still. This was the law.

In fact it was psychological warfare—brainwashing, programming, conditioning. “You matter so little that you have to stand up so a snot-nosed kid can sit down.”

The entire Jim Crow system of segregation was built to control people’s minds as much as their bodies. Colored drinking fountains—movie balconies—waiting rooms—swimming pools—all were intended to keep the people feeling down; worthless, helpless, confused, intimidated, separated, alienated and self-destructive.

If you can control people’s minds, their bodies follow.

There wasn’t a single White person, ever, who believed they would be harmed if they had to drink from the same fountain as a Black person. When you’re thirsty, water is water—and on the farm, it all comes from the same tin cup or gourd, and everyone cheerfully drank after each other without the least concern about hygiene. Remember when you were a kid? “Gimme a drink of that Co-Cola.”

No cooties to be found—including when a Black person got out of her seat on the bus and a White person plopped his butt right down where she’d been a-sitting.

It was largely psychological. But if you dared not to cooperate in your own brainwashing, they’d burn down your house, or bomb your Sunday School.

I’m still stunned by all the violence Whites were willing to commit to maintain their little advantages. I’d guess their self-esteem was pretty shaky too.

And it’s not as if the violence doesn’t continue, or the little mind games; just this week news bubbled up about a White Baptist church in Mississippi that refused to allow a Black, heterosexual couple to get married, purely for reasons of race. This couple had been attending there awhile, but when it came time to stand up in the White folks’ sanctuary, some of the members threw a fit—and the timid, “sensitive” pastor let them.

Thank God you don’t live in Miss’sippi. Or if you do, just slip out the back, Jack. There must be 50 ways to leave the Worst State Ever.

Now let’s bring it home to us. What did Prof. Glass do, and why did it have such an impact?

What does it mean for us today?

What she did, with Rosa Parks, Dr. King and the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, was remove one of the cornerstones in the edifice of racist psychological warfare.

Eventually, with a great deal of suffering and death, the rest of the structure fell down. Black folk stopped letting White people control their thoughts.

I think this applies directly to LGBTs.

The most homophobic people on earth are Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual. We’ve internalized homophobia; we’ve let Straight people brainwash us and control our thoughts.

We then turn around and use their weapons against ourselves, and each other.

I think we do this as much now as we ever did. Psychologically we’ve not made much progress at all. We’re outwardly more free, but our most casual, everyday conversations are laden with Straight people’s thought patterns.

Every “camp” remark ever made is homophobic, dividing the world into worthy Straight people and unworthy Gay people, or worthy men and unworthy women. (Because, you know, to be Gay and male really means you’re just a woman.)

Does this mean we give up our humor? Not at all. It means start being funny for a change!

My Jack was a wit; he kept everyone in stitches. He almost never made camp remarks. He liked Gay people, and fought for us.

Here we are, in 2012, and we’ve still got Gay men signing up for non-existent cures. Evidently they can’t think straight – or Straight’s the only way they can think, and they hate themselves.

We’ve still got Tyler Clementis jumping off bridges. That should teach the camp crowd something – but instead they always blame someone else.

We still churn out devastating statistics on LGBT depression, smoking, alcoholism and drug addiction, and tons of new HIV infections.

We worry about children being bullied, instead of teaching them to fight back.

There is plenty of blame to go around for our personal problems and social problems – but we’re perpetrators too, and we never take responsibility for it. We’ve got more denial than all the rivers of Egypt.

You can’t watch 10 snippets of Gay porn without seeing 8 snippets of homo-hatred. “You like that, bitch?”

Um, no, I don’t. We are not female.

We’re just Gay, that’s all.

I would like us to stop oppressing each other and ourselves. We can’t do much, directly at least, about anti-Gay violence, but we can stop thinking like some Straight people do.

Remember, the oppressor’s as terrified as we are. Do you think those ’50s crackers didn’t know they were doing wrong, bombing churches, burning crosses, shooting people dead?

They knew, all right, and so do we.

It isn’t a crime, when you’re an oppressed person, to absorb the mind games and thought patterns drummed into your head.

But it is a crime to keep thinking that way once you lose your chains. And it’s a felony to make other victims keep feeling bad about themselves.

It’s the old programming principle; garbage in, garbage out.

We’re still putting out an awful lot of garbage, every day, in most of our thoughts and conversations.

“Pride” is supposed to be the antidote to this, but it takes more than marching in a parade or buying a T-shirt. It takes deep soul-searching to root out all the bad programming.

There’s nowhere to go to get a brain transplant. If there were, none of us would smoke, drink or get HIV.

What we can do, though, is act. Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and got arrested. She knew she would; she’d planned it all out.

Then once the news of her refusal reached Ms. Glass, she acted too; the Women’s Political Council acted – and within four days all the buses were empty.

The Black folk who depended on the buses had to make other arrangements. Some walked and some caught a ride with a friend.

They all knew instinctively how important it was to grab onto that cornerstone and yank it.

They didn’t need to go to therapy to change the voices in their heads; they had a tremendous advantage over LGBTs in the support of their families, who always knew racism was wrong.

This isn’t to say there weren’t Black folk who were scared to death to challenge the system; there were. The longer the bus boycott went on, the more internal dissent there was. It’s hard to get someplace when you don’t have transportation.

But they acted, and within a year they won, and only later did they stop to think about what they’d done and what it meant.

The larger civil rights movement was rife with internal dissent; the historical record shows that Dr. King got stabbed in the back more often by fearful Black pastors than any other group. But still he kept it together, even as younger, more militant leaders emerged, without his principles of non-violence. They didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, he did.

LGBTs have made remarkable strides as everyone now sees. We’ve been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land.

But if we want to be actors and not just reactors; if we want to have real pride and not just the kind you buy; if we want political change as well as inner peace and joy, we have to change our behavior and our thoughts.

We have to stop oppressing each other as a crooked way of showing/hiding how oppressed we still feel.

If you find it hard to change your thoughts, change your behavior; boycott Chick-Fil-A – and don’t be too quick to laud Target for running Gay ads and selling Pride trinkets just two short years after donating $150,000 in corporate money to a bigot running for governor of Minnesota.

Penney’s, Ellen’s sponsor, didn’t slip corporate cash to bigots first.

And don’t tell me that you can’t keep up with all the terrible companies, so therefore you don’t do jack shit.

Don’t tell us that you love Jesus or the pope or the Mormon church so much that you’re sticking with them no matter what – or we’ll come and pull you off the bus so you can walk. (You can still love your church, but don’t give them one thin dime as long as they treat LGBTs like the antichrist.)

Don’t tell us that you’re voting for Mitt Romney, “even though you disagree with him on this issue,” without expecting the rest of us to call you out. The only thing the Republican Party stands for now is greed – so we know exactly who your god is, the Almighty Dollar. You didn’t get the Gay gene without also getting the Gay compassion, the Gay empathy.

The more we act to liberate ourselves and others, the more our thoughts realign. (If we try changing our thoughts before our actions, it takes forever.)

Most of all stop oppressing other LGBTs with your idiotic remarks and pathetic humor.

Gay women are women; Gay men are men; and yes, you can play with those roles and gender boundaries all you want – as long as you don’t oppress others.

Bisexuals are real people with real feelings, so stop trying to make them fit your brainwaves.

Transgenders are allowed to be themselves – so hire one.

Imagine the world you want to live in, and your place in it; then act so that it comes true, and your thoughts will follow you. Create a world in which everyone is free.

That’s what Thelma Glass did, and she wasn’t much different from you or me.

But what made her different was that she acted. First Rosa, then Thelma, and suddenly it all went viral.++

3 Responses

  1. “You like that, bitch?”

    Um, no, I don’t. We are not female.

    Well then female humans aren’t bitches, either. Just sayin’.

    I have mixed feelings about camp. Full-disclosure: I like to watch RuPaul’s shows (Drag-Race, and Drag U), ergo, I watch plenty of “Bitch, please!”-type camp.

    But not is there only a lot of internalized homophobia in it (as you indicated), there’s (possibly even more) misogyny, too. [To wit, the hip phrase of this year’s Drag-Race was “I’m serving them fishy realness”. Um, no, you aren’t. A (clean) woman smells no more like a fish, than a (clean) man does. In my (biased&limited) experience, women tend to be MORE clean “all over”, than men tend to.]

    But I hate to see women (straight or gay) get into comparative victimization contests w/ gay men. While we fight amongst ourselves, there’s a Governor Ultrasound mandating RAPE procedures, at the same time he’s banning SSM (i.e., ALL the oppressed lose, while the wingnuts run the show).

    My point (if I have one!) is that camp has its place…but language of self-respect (AND other-respect) has a BIGGER place. Let’s work together, not drive each other apart.

  2. Thank you, tgflux, well said. My reaction the first time I saw a drag show (Oleen’s Lounge, Charlotte, NC, 1975) was, “OMG, this is so insulting to women.” It looked as if they thought being female consisted entirely of exaggerating the curves, the hair and makeup, the emotion and the masochism.

    In time I grew more tolerant. I never have found drag entertaining, however, and your RuPaul citation is why. This isn’t to pick on drag queens, they have a right to exist and do their thing, but they don’t have to make sexist remarks while doing it. The whole essence of camp is “men good, women bad,” “Straight good, Gay bad,” and “if you’re a Gay guy you’re as despicable as a woman, so we’re going to flaunt our despicableness (as if this gives us power).” It’s mighty convoluted to make a tiny point.

    But let’s not divert ourselves from the pioneers’ message, which isn’t about camp but internalized homophobia and self-hatred. I would like it very much if Gay men stopped throwing it in each other’s faces, much less sexualizing it.

    It’s very telling that what happened in Montgomery was started by women – Rosa Parks, Thelma Glass and their friends. And drag queens have always been prominent in Pride activities, so there’s a place for everyone here. If we want to feel pride, we have to act proud.

  3. Well Josh, I agree with much of what you said here. But as Paul brought Peter’s attention to some oversights, so I feel it right to do with you.

    First, although I too am utterly disgusted with the whole history of segregation and all that it entailed, and all that it did to people of both races – still, you must not allow the vigor of your indignation to convince you that you know everything about it. I assume you are from Indiana, or grew up above the Ohio and the Mason Dixon Line and have mostly lived in the North, by your comments. I, on the other hand, am a native Southerner, with nearly 400 years of ancestry in every line I can trace, entirely in the South. And most importantly, not only have I studied the era and read more about it than most folks, I *remember* it vividly. So let me school you on a few details – which, as the saying goes, is where the devil is. I’m not defending segregation or oppression whatsoever – but I am always a foe of sloppy thinking and misleading writing.

    To wit: “No white person, ever, believed they would be harmed if they drank from the same fountain as a black person.” Um, then Josh, why in the world do you think that separate fountains were mandated in the first place? And separate bathrooms too, for that matter?

    An uninformed person reading this essay – which is to say most people – might believe from the way you phrase things in numerous places that there was a great, official psychological mind control program at work in the South, as there indeed was in Nazi Germany under Joseph Goebels and his nasty ilk.

    But the truth is much simpler and less sinister, though not for that less regrettable: white people did indeed believe that blacks were disease-ridden. My own dear parents – college graduates and professional people, both of them – solemnly cautioned me that all black people had syphillis. Yes. Which is what they were told, and their parents before them. How sad that generations of folks believed a lie and thoughtlessly passed in on down the line – but we can look around at the same thing today still, can’t we? About gays and others who are “not our kind.”

    And if you doubt me, friend, I invite you to go read page 17 in “Outside the Magic Circle,” the autobiography of Virginia Durr, a famous Alabamian who with her husband was very prominent in the civil rights movement. On that page you will find her recollection of hearing the very same thing when she was a little girl, about 1910. You can pull up the book easily enough if you do a quick search on Google Books.

    I suspect now you have just learned something you never knew before. Excellent: continue and don’t assume you know it all just because you have found a wonderful target for your righteous wrath. Of course it was a hideous, malignant, thoroughly unChristian lie; but since you are a man of the cloth, I figure that you have an interest, or should, in telling the truth. Which is always much more compelling than fiction.

    BTW, this “disease” idea never stopped anyone from gladly accepting the service of black folks as maids, cooks, and waiters, whether in private homes or in the finest restaurants in town. Which is an example of extreme illogic as well as hypocrisy. But that too is part of the story.

    I agree that the *effects* of all the other segregation laws and separate facilities had a psychological component; but that was the result, not the cause.

    I also notice, my friend, that you play fast and loose with pronouns and events: “if you didn’t, *they* would burn your house or blow up your Sunday school.” Who is this “they”? A careless reader – and they are legion – might think *they* were doing these things night and day, from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. In point of fact, such events were as rare as school shootings in our day and time. Things that horrified and outraged just about everyone when they did occur – I’m not saying they never did, mind – both white and black.

    I also notice, Josh, that you yourself – forgive me for pointing this out, brother – are perhaps guilty of a little prejudice and bigotry yourself when you use the word “crackers” – a term of contempt, often applied to all Southerners. Was that the best word to use?

    Well I’m not going to go through the whole thing but I thought you might want to rethink a few points here that mar what is an otherwise fine, impassioned plea for humane values. Though I also note that just as many rightwing zealots do, your solution to the problem of hatred and intolerance seems to lie in the direction of damning people for personal habits – smoking, drinking, sex – that really have no connection with what you started out to decry in this essay.

    Think about that, won’t you? Where does *that* come from, really, Josh? A desire to, um, control people’s thoughts and feelings and behaviors? Eh? And the point would be . . . ?

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