Monday, March 07, 2005

Homophobia and Civil Rights in the Guardian

Today Britain's The Guardian has a well-written and thoughtful article comparing the current gay-rights movement to the civil rights movement of not-many decades ago. It's too long to post in its entirety, so I will quote some, but encourage you to go read the whole thing here: Extreme prejudice: Events in a small Kansas town reflect the close links between the civil rights struggle and gay liberation

After describing the landscape and the mythic importance of Kansas to American culture, they get to the story:
In this mythic terrain Fred Phelps, of Topeka (pop 122,377), Kansas, fits in and stands out. He fits in because he is a homophobe who, like most of the country, including the Bush administration, uses the Bible as the source of his bigotry. He stands out because, unlike most of the country, he pursues his agenda with a vicious zeal and animus that not even the White House could match. When Mr Phelps attended the funeral of Matthew Shephard, a young man beaten to a pulp in a homophobic attack, or those of prominent HIV sufferers, he took his "God hates fags" picket signs with him.

Phelp's granddaughter, Jael, inherited his intolerance. "The proscribed punishment for homosexuality in the Bible is death," she told the New York Times last week. "They are worthy of death, and those people who condone that action are just as guilty." Last week, Jael Phelps stood for election against the city's first and only openly gay city councilwoman, Tiffany Muller, in a primary. She also lobbied to defeat a local ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against lesbians and gays who work for the city. She lost on both counts, coming a distant last in the primary while the ordnance was passed 53% to 47%.

The victory was principally due to local factors. With the Phelpses in the frame, the vote became as much a referendum about rejecting flagrant bigotry as embracing equality. A statewide vote calling for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in April is expected to pass easily; Muller came second but enters April's runoff as the underdog. But the process by which it came about illustrates a national trend that has striking parallels with the civil rights period of the 50s and 60s, when Topeka was in the national spotlight.

Just over 50 years ago, an African American, Oliver Brown, tried to enroll his daughter, Linda, into the white junior school here. The local board of education refused to admit her. Brown, along with other parents facing similar problems across the country, objected in a suit that went all the way to the supreme court. In 1954, in a landmark ruling, the supreme court effectively outlawed segregation, in the now famous Brown v Board of Education.

So Topeka was a central location for a major civil-rights case, and is known today for being the site of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church, the creators and maintainers of the famous web site

Many people are uncomfortable comparing today's struggle for rights for homosexuals to the fight over civil rights for blacks.
To compare these two struggles is not to equate them. To say they are the same would be ridiculous. It goes without saying that there are major differences between race and sexual orientation - and therefore homophobia and racism. It also goes without saying that the existence of many black lesbians and gays makes the binary opposition of the two issues redundant. To ignore the parallels would be no less ridiculous. The civil rights movement was not made from whole cloth. Nor were its achievements limited to the interests of African Americans. It was part of a narrative of extending human rights to those who had been denied them that helped remove discriminatory barriers for many, not least white women and Jews. Its roots, like its appeal, were universal.

I have often wondered one thing: what are people really thinking, who discriminate against gays? What is the point of it, really? Is it just the discomfort of seeing people do things you yourself wouldn't want to do? Is it possible that this really is religion-based, that some Christians actually believe in their hearts that Jesus wanted them to hate gay people? Is it discomfort with their own ambiguous sexuality? Do they actually believe that two guys getting married somehow endangers their own families? I just don't get it. Prejudice against stupid people, OK, I get that. Rude people, sure. Lazy people, no problem. But gay people? Why?
There are two main reasons why this comparison jars with many. The first is blatant homophobia. It is far easier to marginalise the lesbian and gay agenda if you can sever any association between it and other struggles for equality. The second is latent homophobia, which argues that such comparisons trivialise racism, as though the right to love who you want and still keep your job, your home and sometimes your life is a trifling matter.

Sadly, people like the Phelpses exist, and will always exist, hating just for hatred's sake. And it's too bad, but some of those people live in our own community.

Should we allow them to determine what the public shools teach? Or should we insist on facts in the classroom? I hope the answer is obvious.


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