As a closeted, gay 16 year-old male, when my parents aren't home I often spend time cruising the Internet to see what's up in the "forbidden" world of homosexuality. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, and some of it scares the hell out of me.
The other day, I found a couple of pages that referred to the movement for gay rights as the last great battle for civil rights. At first, I (naively) agreed. After all, just looking at the sheer numbers of demographic groups that have been persecuted and discriminated against throughout world history that have finally won their right to be accepted for who they are (at least most of the time), it makes one think that homosexuals must be the last group to receive such rights.
To push the point, let's take a look at history during the existence of the United States. During this time period, dozens groups were persecuted, often through quite "official" channels using highly systematic methods. A great example of this "structured persecution" syndrome that has been seen in many major cultural conflicts is illustrated in Brian's April column.
We can start with the easy ones. From 1776 to 1900, women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and foreigners were the most blatant targets of oppression. But then came the 20th century. This was the age of silently organized cultural destruction.
The Armenian genocide. Most Americans know nothing about the Armenian genocide, but the efforts of the Ottoman Turks (the Islamic rulers) to rid Turkey of the Armenians (a Christian minority without a home country) during World War I was the event that caused the word genocide to be coined, and caused international law to begin developing regarding genocidal war criminals. (An excellent book on the Armenian genocide is The 40 Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel.)
A few years later, Nazi Germany came. Almost everyone knows the magic number: 6 million Jews. But, shortly afterward in history, how many people can correctly attribute this number: 10-20 million dissidents. Joseph Stalin was responsible for this number. And don't forget Mao Zedong's China, specifically his anti-capitalist Cultural Revolution. His regime was responsible for oppression comparable to Stalin's and Hitler's regimes.
And then there are the smallest, most secretive incidents of oppression and genocide. East Timor. How many people have heard of it? The Indonesians had a Manifest Destiny of their own going on, went in, slaughtered the people, and took over. Even worse, circumstantial evidence exists that the United States government knew what was going to happen and unofficially "gave the green light." Britain sold the weapons that were used in the acts, and still sells weapons to Indonesia.
There was Panama and Rwanda and South Africa and Japanese-Americans in U.S. concentration camps and Pol Pot and Argentina's genocidal government in the late 1970's. And to think that this is a partial list!
Many of these conflicts have been, for the most part, resolved, although they all go on in some respects. But the conflict between gays and homophobic people is still a turbulent conflict in this nation and in the majority of the world. But is it the last great battle for civil rights? No. Such thought is pure sophistry.
There are still major cultural conflicts that are in progress all around the world. The Turks and the Kurds are fighting. Saddam and the Kurds are fighting. (The Kurds just seem to get it from everyone!) The Indians and the Pakistanis are fighting. The Tibetans and the Chinese are fighting. The Secular and the Orthodox Jews in Israel can't get along with each other. The Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland hate each other, although this conflict may be winding down soon
There are plenty more conflicts like these that are going on right now in the United States. Many of these conflicts are considerably more complicated and difficult than the battle for gay rights.
Comparatively, the battle for gay rights is easy. All we have to do is convince people to at least tolerate and hopefully accept the fact that being gay is a natural and acceptable lifestyle. After that point, and after about seven or eight pieces of legislation later, gay couples will be figuratively equal to straight couples. I realize that this process is very difficult and I am not trying to belittle it. I am just saying that it is comparatively easy.
Think about people with mental and physical disabilities. Most people can probably honestly say that they are not prejudiced toward people with disabilities. (Although with the rate that students in U.S. schools use the word "retard" as a pejorative, you wonder.) However, people with disabilities are fighting a civil rights movement of epic proportions. In order to make people with disabilities an integrated part of our society, not only do we have to accept them mentally, we have to make major changes to the way we do things. Do you ever notice when you walk into a building that isn't wheelchair accessible? Yes, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is designed to require most buildings to add such accessibility, yet there are still many locations that are out of compliance. Why are so many locations out of compliance? People have not made the major changes in the way that they work that are necessary in order to help the physically disabled succeed.
Have you ever thought about how people with mental disabilities are educated? Research shows that most students with mental disabilities are best served when they are mainstreamed for much of their day in "normal" classes, as long as they are given appropriate instructional support and instructional modifications. Legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been enacted to require that students are educated in the "least restrictive environment." Despite all this, many students who could be partially mainstreamed are being inappropriately placed in Special Education classes all day simply because teachers and administrators have not made the considerable effort that is needed to facilitate success.
I believe that most Americans would claim that they are not prejudiced against foreigners. However, when foreigners come to the United States, what they experience here is not always the result of unprejudiced attitudes. For instance, what happens when Mexican children come to the U.S. who cannot speak English? They often fail in U.S. education programs because we have not developed enough of the Bilingual Education programs that have repetitively fostered successful students. Some states have even gone so far as to pass laws making English the official language and forcing government employees to conduct their business using English exclusively. These kinds of laws have wreaked havoc on certain government services that need to communicate with citizens who speak limited English. Since when do we not have the right to communicate how we choose?
These are just a few of the most difficult battles for civil rights that occur in the United States. Complicating matters further is the fact that oftentimes, the target of the discrimination in the above situations does not have the ability to advocate for him/herself.
So, how is it that some people believe that the battle for gay rights is so unique? It is very understandable. When a person feels oppressed, their problems seem to matter more than any other problems. I catch myself mentally belittling the problems of others more often than I would like. I've started to refer to this syndrome as homocentrism. If we ever hope to become truly equal with the rest of the population, we have to stop thinking solely about our problems. The other day, I saw someone wearing a button that summarized the situation by sarcastically stating: If gays and lesbians receive civil rights, then everyone is going to want civil rights!
Considering that this is my first column, I'd like to know if anyone found it interesting. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.