Friday, July 08, 2005

Thirty Six Years After Stonewall: The State of LGBT Civil Rights

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One of the better pre-July 8, 2005 posts

In the early morning hours of June 27, 1969, the New York City Police Department, once again, raided one of the many gay hangout spots and bars in Greenwich Village. This bar, the Stonewall Inn, was a hangout spot frequented by gays, drag queens, transgendered persons and other people considered “rejects” or somehow deficient in American society.

What made this particular raid different and memorable, however, is also the same thing which would spark the National Gay Rights Movement. Unlike the many times in which the New York Police had raided Stonewall and the many other gay bars, patrons of the Stonewall did not just sit down and take the abuse. They fought back. The Police barricaded themselves inside the bar as all hell broke lose outside on Christopher Street. The riots lasted for almost a week after the initial raid at Stonewall that night and the nation started to come to a realization that gay people were no longer just going to sit idly by as their civil and human rights were abused and stripped away by those in power.

Today, the state of LGBTQ civil rights is far better than it was in June of 1969. As a group, gay people have come into being; we are now a community and no longer, for the most part, society’s rejects. We no longer exist on the very fringe of society, for we are involved in society’s everyday life. Openly gay people, living their lives and not hiding who they are, can be found in every walk of life and in almost every area of our nation. We are high school students learning algebra and world history. We are teachers teaching our nation’s future leaders. We are mechanics fixing our neighbors’ cars. We are accountants, lawyers, doctors and business owners. We are priests and members of the clergy teaching about God and His everlasting love shown through Christ. We are Rabbis and Imams. We are involved in politics, from the very bottom as a campaign worker, to the very top as a member of the United States Congress. Gay people are, today, able to live their lives in a somewhat stable manner.

The thing that gay people have not been able to achieve in the past thirty six years, however, is a feeling of acceptance and respect within our society. Yes, we may be everywhere and many people may know other gay people, but, overall, our society still does not accept, much less respect, us and our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In many areas of the country we can still lose our house or apartment if our landlord doesn’t like gay people. We can be fired from our jobs, simply because we are gay. We can be expelled from our Church-run school, college or university. LGBTQ parents can be told to come, not as a couple, but separately to school functions. And the most obvious point of civil rights concern: We have become, officially and constitutionally, American second-class citizens by the numerous state constitutional amendments discriminating against gay people based simply upon our sexual orientation.

We have made much progress, however, and that progress is going to help us fix the many problems that still exist. Our largest and most substantial piece of progress is how much we have been able to network, nationally and on the local levels, with other people like us and other people sympathetic to our cause. Straight people can be our biggest allies and in many cases in the past thirty-six years straight people have been just as personally involved and devoted to our cause as gay people. The Civil Rights Movement would never have been a success without the help of white people and, likewise, the Gay Rights Movement will never fully succeed without the help of straight people.

In terms of successes, there are many. These successes, however, are sometimes small and insignificant compared to the victories which we have yet been able to attain. Some of our successes, such as more gay people in the media and more representation in Hollywood’s creations, are good but where do they really get us? Many of the gay roles on television are humorous and who would take an overly stereotypical, feminine gay man strutting around like a woman seriously? All that gays in the media get us is entertainment. The only time that having gay roles on television might help is on shows such as Law and Order: SVU where gay people are seen as normal human beings living out their lives in the face of rejection from friends and family and the sometimes all too real possibility of being hurt or killed simply because we are gay. Those types of roles really help us. The greater society gets to see gay people as human beings, free of stereotypes and lies.

One success, which is a great victory but also one which has yet to materialize on a national scale, is the respect of gay youth within our nation’s schools. In such states as Vermont, Massachusetts, California and New York, legislation has created a more positive and safer climate for LGBTQ youth. Our youth, gay or straight, is our nation’s greatest asset, for it is the youth of today who will become our future leaders, doctors, lawyers, politicians, business owners, teachers, parents, etc. Although the state of our school climates have become better for gay youth in some schools across the nation, we cannot count this as a full victory until all gay youth are respected and able to learn and grow in schools free from discrimination, harassment, prejudice and physical and verbal abuse. Parents, teachers, students and community members realize this and for the sake of voiceless gay youth across the nation groups such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and state groups such as North Carolina’s own Safe Schools NC are working toward the greater vision of a nation of respecting, tolerant, safe and secure institutions of education.

Many would say that the greatest set back to the Gay Rights Movement, at least in recent years, is the introduction and passage of numerous state constitutional amendments limiting marriage to a union of one man and one woman. Casting out arguments regarding marriage equality and a gay couple’s right to marry, these amendments are still ethically, legally and morally deficient. These amendments do more than just limit marriage and in places like the Commonwealth of Virginia, gay couples have been stripped of the right to enter into otherwise legal contractual agreements such as power of attorney agreements and wills if those agreements and contracts somehow give any of the rights or benefits of marriage to couples ineligible for marriage. The constitutional amendments across the nation making marriage between one man and one woman also only give the rights and privileges associated with marriage to those persons who are married. In places such as the State of Michigan, unmarried, straight couples are being stripped of the right to be protected from domestic violence because of the couple’s unmarried status. So it is easy to see how these amendments are so legally, ethically and morally wrong, for they not only discriminate against gay people (the last group of people which, many would say, is still allowed to be harassed or discriminated against), they discriminate against every couple which is unmarried. The one fact which separates the unmarried gay couples from the unmarried straight couples is this: those unmarried straight couples still reserve the right to get married at any time; gay couples don’t have that right and are unable to ever achieve the more than 1000 rights, benefits, privileges and protections, plus hundreds more given on the state levels, associated with being in a legally recognized relationship.

Although we have many areas in which we must still gain acceptance and respect and also many areas in which we must still work to attain full equality, we have many things for which to be thankful. One of the greatest things which I have learned in my more than five year involvement in gay rights activism circles is that we must always remember the positives; we must always remember our past successes and victories. In the face of what seems unbearable and unchangeable we must look into the past and see what we have changed so far. Being aware of what has changed and how many victories we have helps us to go forward and they all serve as a rallying point, for many of our victories belong to everyday life and are things which gay people everywhere can relate and be grateful.

In the past thirty six years, the state of LGBTQ civil rights has done nothing but improve. We must continue our work and our devotion in order to make sure that civil rights will continue to improve. Whether you are an activist, politician, teacher, student, parent, blue-collar worker, or high-class business person, you can do your part in furthering LGBTQ civil rights by simply being who you are and speaking out in ways in which you feel comfortable when you see intolerance and disrespect. If you are not “out of the closet” that does not mean that you don’t have anything to offer. If you are in the position to do so, come out and let your family and friends know who you really are. Surprisingly, the single act of “coming out” can do so many great things to help make others more accepting, tolerant and respectful.

Gay people in the United States have a lot for which to be thankful. We also have many things for which we must still work and strive. If we continue to strive for the goal and keep our eyes on the greater vision of a nation of acceptance and full equality, we will someday make that a victory. If we band together and continue to network and work together as we have in the past thirty six years, we will succeed and we will, one day, be welcomed with open arms into full equality in our communities, cities, states, nation and society.

Misunderstanding arising from ignorance breeds fear and fear remains the greatest enemy of peace. ~ Lester B. Peterson