It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and while many people are protesting to #ReclaimMLK, making sure the legacy of the influential civil rights leader doesn’t get sanitized — or remembering King’s openly gay right-hand man, Bayard Rustin — we thought we’d look at some advice he gave a closeted teen in the January 1958 issue of Ebony magazine.
Despite treating the advice-seeker’s homosexuality as a mental illness — obviously this advice from Martin Luther King Jr. was very much a product of its time — he still offers compassion during a time when many saw homosexuality as a crime and a grave sin.
Here’s how Martin Luther King Jr. answered the teen:
My problem is different from the ones most people have. I am a boy, but I feel about boys the way I ought to feel about girls. I don’t want my parents to know about me. What can I do? Is there any place where I can go for help?
Your problem is not at all an uncommon one. However, it does require careful attention. The type of feeling that you have toward boys is probably not an innate tendency, but something that has been culturally acquired. Your reasons for adopting this habit have now been consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with this problem by getting back to some of the experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. In order to do this I would suggest that you see a good psychiatrist who can assist you in bringing to the forefront of conscience all of those experiences and circumstances that lead to the habit. You are already on the right road toward a solution, since you honestly recognize the problem and have a desire to solve it.
One source notes that because Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, he didn’t witness the birth of the modern day LGBTQ rights movement following the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
As a result, we don’t know much else about King’s thoughts on LGBTQ liberation.
Lest we judge his advice too harshly, we should remember that the American Psychiatric Association also viewed homosexuality as a mental disorder until it removed it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.
Also, it’s worth noting that King’s wife Coretta Scott King spoke out against gay and lesbian discrimination as early as 1983, all the way until her death in 2006.
What do you think of this advice to a closeted teen from Martin Luther King Jr.?
This story originally ran on January 18, 2016