Sunday, January 8, 2012

Straight Folks, the Shame is Ours

As I write this it is a new year, and 2012 promises to be another good one for the gay and lesbian community, particularly in the West.

2011 was a banner year on which to build.  From the removal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the U.S. military, to the Australian Labour Party changing its platform to support marriage equality.  From same-sex marriage becoming legal in New York state, to Denmark announcing that it will be upgrading its partnership law to full marriage equality.  From civil unions being instated in the biggest Catholic-majority country on the planet (Brazil), to the U.K.'s Prime Minister announcing that British foreign aid will be greatly reduced to those countries which fail to protect and guarantee the rights of LGBTs.  And from the swearing-in of the world's first openly gay male head of state (the new Prime Minister of Belgium), to the Psychological Association of the Philippines (finally!) announcing its support for the Anti-Discrimination Bill.

Now we await the good news to come in 2012:
  • Washington state's governor has endorsed marriage equality and pledged to make her state the next to have same-sex marriage;
  • The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California will issue a ruling in the Prop 8 case by May, which legal analysts are 99.99% sure will make marriage equality legal once again in America's most populous state (a broadened case may even end up in the U.S. Supreme Court by 2013);
  • Both Germany and Finland have marriage equality upgrade bills in the legislative docket (both already have partnership laws in place);
  • and France's president Sarkozy is expected to endorse marriage equality before the April 22nd national elections (the opposition socialists, who have included same-sex marriage in their platform, have made the issue a cornerstone of the campaign, promising to bring marriage equality to France if they win a majority.  Their candidate, Francois Hollande, is currently polling at least 10 points ahead of Sarkozy, by the way). 

The majority isn't always right, and that shame is ours
We're doing better.  Humanity is turning a corner.  We're evolving rapidly on the issue of LGBT rights, including marriage, and it's about damn time.  It has taken us far too long already, and of this I am deeply ashamed.

As a straight man, I am in the majority.  No matter where on earth one goes, straight people are the majority. 

I am ashamed that for centuries we have used our majority status as an excuse to claim the patent on normalcy; to denounce differences; to project superiority.  Most of us do it because we think we're better, though very few would tell you that outright.  We're in the majority, therefore we're normal.  If you're gay you're abnormal, or worse:  an abomination.

Our bias is usually based on ancient religious dogma or conservative cultural traditions.  In most developing countries the two are typically, unfortunately, indistinguishable.

We're turning a corner, yes, but we're not there yet.  Some regions turn corners faster than others.  It has always been this way.  Typically it's Northern Europe first, then Australia/NZ, North America, and Southern Europe, then South America, then Asia, then Africa and the Middle East.  This has been the pattern followed on most progressive issues over the last century, from women's suffrage and abortion rights, to interracial and same-sex marriage.

We tend to forget that this isn't the first battle for marriage equality that humanity has had to come to terms with.  A half a century ago it was dreadfully scandalous and considered immoral and sinful for two persons of differing races to be in a relationship, let alone marry.  In over half of all U.S. states, for example, interracial marriage was actually illegal at one time.  And we're not talking about the murky, distant past here -- this was a mere 45 years ago!

Imagine for a moment that the year is 1966.  A Filipino-American living in the U.S. state of Missouri (or any of over a dozen other states at the time) meets and falls in love with a white American.  Eventually they are engaged to be married, and they go to the county courthouse to apply for a marriage license.  The county clerk, however, turns them away, refusing to issue government forms to the couple.  Is it because they are both women?  Both men?  No, they are actually an opposite-sex couple.

The reason for their denial is equally simple and disturbing:  one is white and the other is Asian.  In the eyes of the state, that was enough to refuse them the right to marry.  Such was the reality in many U.S. states until a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967 which finally made interracial marriage legal in all states.

A straight American couple protesting for same-sex marriage
The parallels between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage are remarkable.  These types of social issues seem to play out most dramatically in the U.S.

Today very few people give a second thought about interracial marriage, and we take for granted that it was a long, hard fight to win that right.  It wasn't just blacks who were banned from marrying whites:  Native Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, and Filipinos were also specifically listed as being forbidden to marry white Americans.

This was seen as a major moral issue in the early and mid-20th century.  A 1958 Gallup poll showed opposition to interracial marriage in the U.S. to be at 94%.  The same poll conducted again in 1968 found that 73% of Americans strongly opposed such unions, with another 7% being "unsure."  Support for interracial unions didn't even surpass the 50% mark until 1991.

Even today not all Americans approve of mixed-race relationships.  A 2011 poll found that 86% support them, leaving 14% who still think such relationships are distasteful, or even sinful.  And a whopping 46% of self-described conservatives in the southern state of Mississippi think that interracial marriage should still be illegalIn 2011!

Imagine that for a moment.  Just 45 years ago if a Filipino and an American fell in love and wanted to marry, they ran the risk of being denied that right simply because they were of different races.  Their love counted for nothing.  The years they may have spent together counted for nothing.  Today most people find such a concept repulsive, and rightly so.  And it went beyond marriage bans:  many states also had laws against any sexual contact between persons of different races, in much the same way they had "anti-sodomy" laws.

The Supreme Court of the state of Georgia, in the U.S. deep south, once ruled that interracial marriages "are productive of evil, and evil only, without any corresponding good."  During one of several attempts to pass an amendment to the U.S. constitution to permanently ban interracial marriage nationwide, one conservative U.S. Congressman said this in a speech in Congress:  "Intermarriage between races is repulsive and adverse to every sentiment of pure American spirit.  It is abhorrent and repugnant.  It is subversive to social peace.  It is destructive of morality."  Another conservative representative argued passionately that mixed-race marriages must remain illegal, because "natural instinct revolts at it as wrong."

Christian preachers warned of God's wrath and the destruction of the family if the races were allowed to legally join in wedlock (calling it an interference with God's laws), giving Bible verses to support their bigoted points of view.  (See Numbers 36:6; Deut. 7:3-4; 2 Cor. 6:14-16; Ezra 9:12; Ex. 34:14-16; Judges 14:1-3.)

Sound familiar?  Sounds an awful lot like what many conservative politicians and clergy today say about same-sex marriage.  New era, same fears, different minority group to pick on.

America always seems to be locked in a great tug-of-war of ideals.  It is a unique country of huge diversity.  It is a country that is neither majority-liberal (like my own country) nor majority-conservative (like the Philippines).  It is essentially stuck somewhere in between -- split down the middle 50/50 -- which is perhaps why I find it so fascinating in terms of its social evolution.

Front page controversy in 1967
America moves at a little slower pace than Europe and even Canada, but eventually she gets there and makes the right decision.  She waited on giving women the right to vote, but finally came around in 1920.  She waited on interracial marriage, but finally came around in 1967.  She waited on abortion rights, but finally came around in 1973.  She waited on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, but finally came around in 2011. 

Now the same is holding true with marriage equality.  You can delay the inevitable, but as more and more civilized countries become marriage equality countries, it is only a matter of time before it is widely accepted in all free nations.

Just as modern man bears the shame of our past chastisement, condemnation, and even outlawing of interracial marriage, we straight people must bear the shame of doing the same thing to same-sex couples.  The closed-minded generations who believed interracial marriages were sinful and dangerous have faded into the past, and today's generation asks:  "How could they have been so cruel and short-sighted?"  The closed-minded older generation who today believes same-sex marriages are sinful and dangerous will soon also fade into the past as well, and the young ones will ask:  "How could they have been so cruel and short-sighted?"

I actually experienced a situation like this recently.  My 11-year old nephew and I were talking about tolerance and equality (he's a very compassionate, "stick up for the little guy" type, of which I'm very proud).  One of my nephew's friends was with him, and his friend mentioned how a gay married couple are his next-door neighbors.  "They're really cool and friendly," he said to me, "and they even shovel the snow off the sidewalk for the old people in the neighborhood." 

"Did you know that back before you two were born, it was actually not allowed for same-sex couples to get married?," I asked them.  My nephew's friend had a shocked and bewildered look on his face, and my nephew shook his head disapprovingly, saying, "Well I'm glad I wasn't part of the generation that did that.  How could they ever outlaw love?" 

I'm the proudest uncle in the world to have heard my nephew say that. 

Straight folks, the shame is ours.  We created this shame, we fostered it, we'll have to bear it, and it is our responsibility to correct the indignity and inequality that has brought this shame upon us.  I'm proud to be a straight man who is in favor of full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters all over the world.

We're working to make humanity turn this corner even faster than the corner we turned on interracial marriage, because the wrong side of history is an ugly place to be.  Just ask the small minds who tried to stop mixed-race unions those decades ago. 

Oh wait, you can't; most of them are dead and gone now...and so is their bigotry.


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