In a way, marriage equality is kind of like winning the lottery, but then realizing the cash prize is all your own money already. It’s like having a fortune you were born with and entitled to, but somehow deprived of and kept away from by generations of short-sighted and powerful men clinging desperately to your birthright, in fear that they’ll lose theirs. Marriage equality is not a threat to the institution of marriage. It’s a threat to the people in power. Power that has been hoarded over like a vast inheritance since time immemorial, and is suddenly being distributed to those who not only need it the most, but those who innately possessed it all along. Those at the top are scared, because for one of the first times in history, those at the bottom are not only hungry, but patient. They’re clever and capable enough to use the system against itself, in order to right past wrongs and ensure we all live in a society that serves every citizen, regardless of gender, orientation, faith, skin color, wealth, and all the other characteristics that make us unique and different, yet unmistakably alike. But this journey is one fraught with peril, for we must be vigilant that the oppressed doesn’t become the oppressor, and that love trumps vengeance every time. If ever there were a moral imperative, that would be it.
I can’t help but think of the great Dickens’ story, Oliver Twist. As we all know, Oliver is a poor orphaned boy who doesn’t know his parentage, and is one day sent to a miserable workhouse to toil his days away. One day, the desperately hungry boys decide to draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel. The task falls to Oliver, who at the next meal tremblingly comes up forward, bowl in hand, and begs Mr. Bumble for gruel with his famous request: “Please, sir, I want some more,” to which Bumble increduously replies, “More?!?” In the end, we of course find out that Oliver had money all along, and had a rich inheritance denied to him all those years. In that time, he had been abused and beggared by society, and cast aside and worked to the bone by the rich and powerful. Even Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and other poor castoffs took advantage and exploited poor Oliver. And yet, throughout the course of the novel, Oliver is always generous and kind, and even when he earns his much overdue inheritance, his kindly benefactor Brownlow asks Oliver to give half his meager inheritance to his no-good half-brother Monks because he wants to give him a second chance. Oliver, being prone to giving second chances, is more than happy to comply, and he shares it with the dissolute man.
Since time began, minorities such as gay people and blacks have suffered lives like Oliver Twist, and had to live in the shadows, and slave away quietly while others got rich and lived loud and proud. They were oppressed and exploited, and always made to feel like an unwelcome outside. During the Civil War blacks and whites both fought for the preservation of the Union, but knew they were fighting for something greater. They were fighting to emancipate a group of human beings who had been enslaved, beaten, killed, and mistreated for centuries, all in the name of PROFIT! Slavery was a rich legacy in the South, and that war opened a wound that has never healed, and has recently started to fester and ooze. But that fight was won by and for the African Americans in this country, and we are all the better for it. Of course, we all know that hard and bloody conflict wasn’t enough to deliver equal rights and protection to black men and women, even when ensured these rights by laws and Constitutional Amendments. And thus, nearly a century later, blacks once again raised the banner, and peaceably demonstrated and marched to win the rights they were supposedly born with, but had never properly enjoyed. Again, they were met with violence and terror, yet they persevered and stayed strong. Their efforts, like the efforts of their ancestors before them, were successful in earning them their long overdue rights. Today, we are seeing another movement on the rise, and its another cry from the black community, who have suffered at the hands of whites again. Contrary to the condemnation of many on the Right, the African American community is not whining and moaning, nor are they too lazy and unmotivated to work and make a living for themselves. This is a group of people who have supposedly been granted equal rights and are protected by American law, yet are still victimized by the sheer color of their skin. They are denied employment racially profiled, discriminated against in the workplace, denied loans, given subprime predatory loans,unfairly assaulted and terrorized by law enforcement more than any other group, met with violence by overzealous gun owners, subjected to poor and inadequate educations, and many other small and large offenses. In short, they are forced to live in a society and under a government that wasn’t built for them. Even the very language we use is loaded, and full of implicit and explicit racism. It’s around every corner. It’s called Institutional Racism, and it permeates our global culture. Having dark skin is a liability in this world, and there’s seemingly nothing anyone can do about it. Except there is.
In the book, Oliver Twist lived an impoverished life of squalor and deprivation. At every turn, he was taken advantage of and denied his rights. Literally, this poor boy was denied his inheritance and natural birthright. Such is the case for minorities, women, and LGBT Americans, and more globally, citizens of the world. There are millions of proverbial orphans out there, in search of their homeland, and it’s often the land beneath their feet. But they are not truly home, because they are unwelcome there, and met with hostility. Poor Oliver had a fortune all along! He was born with it. So are all these people throughout the world. MORE?!? Yes, more!!! Naturally, the analogy I’m drawing is that Oliver was just asking for the bare minimum. What was due him. He was just looking to survive. He just wanted what he thought he deserved. So too are oppressed and persecuted Americans and global citizens everywhere. A meager bowl of gruel. No more than anyone else gets for free.
What Bumble saw was not just a meager bowl of gruel, but a valuable chess piece that he was withholding from Oliver, as he played the classic Master-Slave paradigm and deprived the boy of not only his meal, but his humanity. Yesterday was a victory for equality and social justice, but we it should be obvious that we still have a long way to go. The fact that the LGBT community has been fighting this battle for centuries, all to win a right that men and women have enjoyed since time began, should tell us how far we still have left to go. They broke even! They fought to win back their own inalienable right we were all born with. I am not saying this to minimize their effort and the sweet satisfaction that comes with earning their rich reward, but just to demonstrate how deeply rooted this bigotry and intolerance really is. Everyone who fought and died and shed their blood and tears for this cause is a hero, and I am so humbled by their struggle. I have tried to help in my own small way, but it’s never enough. I just hope we take this time to celebrate how far we’ve come and all that we’ve accomplished, but remember…the rights they earned were theirs already!!! Now let’s start capturing the rights and rewards the powerful and intolerant have been enjoying since the dawn of time.
As we move forward though, I only hope that we can strive to keep the civil in civil rights. This was a major victory for those who have struggled, fought, died, and surrendered so much all for being who they are, and to try and win the right to love whomever they choose. There’s understandably a lot of anger and resentment out there. And I am not gay, and would never presume to know what it’s been like for all these brave men and women everywhere. But as a human being — which we all presumably are, first and foremost — I can only hope that we aspire to be better than our “masters” and have the integrity to not gloat or taunt the opposition, but celebrate proudly and respectfully. Would they do that for you? NO. But that should be the very reason we do that for them! Winning a decisive victory like the LGBT community won yesterday is a special moment, but it shouldn’t be about flipping the tables, subjugating the bigots, or punishing the plantation owners. Just the opposite. I feel that those of us who support marriage equality should conduct ourselves with dignity, compassion, mercy, empathy, and a heart big enough to forgive past injustices. I’m not asking anyone to forget, just consider forgiving. Otherwise, that’s a lot of hatred and anger to carry around and constrict you, when you’ve just won your liberty! We don’t ever want to become like them, but we will if we allow hate and retribution to dominate and guide our words and actions. Rather, if we can lead by example and model civilized and open-minded behavior, eventually time, attrition, and exposure to diversity and tolerance will eventually turn hearts and minds. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” You can’t win the hearts and minds of a people you’ve just decimated and dehumanized. The debacle of the Reconstruction proved that. We’re still reeling from the reckless and thoughtless treatment of the South after the Civil War. We won no hearts and minds then.
It’s important to remember that we’ve got allies out there in those bigoted masses. Think about how appallingly racist the South was at one time. Yes, I’m aware there’s still an alarming number of racists still there. But I’m talking about the average citizen in my own mother’s lifetime that actively and vocally supported segregation and even violence against blacks. It makes me think back to my time in Pittsburgh, when I saw a provocative and compelling traveling art exhibit called “No Sanctuary” with dozens of photographs depicting actual lynchings in the South. The horrifying bodies were hanging grotesque and lifeless, but the real horror was in those that looked on. Every picture chronicled a shameful moment when a huge crowd of white folks gathered to see the black man hanging. There were women and children, fathers and husbands, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The town grocer was there. The used car salesman. The elementary school teacher. And those kids. Big eyes and smiles, as they learned what it meant to hate. Unlike inalienable rights, Intolerance isn’t something we’re born with. It’s something we learn. For many bigoted Americans, they are still clinging to their legacy, and they’re terrified what would happen if they were to lose it. It’s the only life they know. To them, THAT is their birthright. It’s all they know. They think that that is their genetic inheritance. They are “Just as God made them.” This is actually not the case. They are solely the product of their environment. Sure, some are more prone to anger and violence, others have less brain capacity, some others still are less able to comprehend nuance and grey areas. But we are kidding ourselves if we actually believe that all bigots and right-wingers are slow and unintelligent people. They are certainly as diverse and varied as any of us, they just tend to be more vocal in their beliefs and condemnations, and adhere strictly to their principles and faithful devotion. But that describes many on the Left. It’s convenient to point figures at churches and houses of worship, but even these are as diverse as the spectrum is wide. Just as many of them want to save us, we must desire to save them. The difference is, we must do it with love, and not hate. We must find ourselves in them, and at least make the effort to convert the stubbornly bigoted to the path of peace and equality. They must understand that it’s not about taking away their rights and enslaving them, but building a safe and supportive community together. I know that I sound pie-in-the-sky and probably unrealistic, but they are our neighbors, and unless this country breaks up into separate sovereign and ideological territories, we all have to live together. They think they are born that way, and gays choose it. It’s important to change that misconception, first and foremost. They can only learn through repeated contact, not through isolation and exclusion. The Left can be just as partisan, uncompromising, and resort to just as much base demagoguery as the Right. We must somehow find a way to reach across the aisle — both literally and figuratively.
Unlike the misguided beliefs of those who deny the theory of Evolution, and cling to the idea that they were born in God’s perfect image — gay men and women rightly declare that they too were born the way they are, and that genetics determined their identity, as much as environment. Even transgender people clarify that the bodies they were born with aren’t necessarily how they see themselves and how they necessarily identify. Biological Gender (sex) includes physical attributes such as external genitalia, sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, and internal reproductive structures. At birth, it is used to assign sex, that is, to identify individuals as male or female. Gender on the other hand is far more complicated. It is the complex interrelationship between an individual’s sex (gender biology), one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither (gender identity) as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors (gender expression) related to that perception, including their gender role. Together, the intersection of these three dimensions produces one’s authentic sense of gender, both in how people experience their own gender as well as how others perceive it. They rightfully insist that they be allowed to self identify on birth certificates, for example, with or without sex reassignment surgery. Ultimately, we are who we think we are, and how we see ourselves. How can anyone deny another person the right to be who they are? Especially considering such declarations harm absolutely no one. And yet, many still see it as a threat to traditional family values, and the cherished beliefs they were raised on. Unlike the learned hatred of many in this country, gay and transgender people inherited a genetic legacy, and that should be enough for them to proudly and openly live it.
As I approach the conclusion, I just want to implore people everywhere to celebrate and savor this momentous occasion, but never forget that the fight still goes on. Rights are violated and denied everywhere in this country, every day of the year. There’s a considerable number of those bigots and intolerant folks around this country, in every city, town, and state. But remember, they are also our own friends and neighbors. They are sometimes our very own families. They are us. That lottery I spoke of is something we all are born with, it’s just that many of us have been robbed and deprived of ever enjoying our rich inheritance. It’s alarming that there are still so many people who wish to deny any human being their guaranteed birthright. Although a hypocritical and conflicted man himself, Thomas Jefferson was nonetheless visited by a muse the day he wrote the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Right now, we are still fighting to get to the same starting line and ensure we all are afforded those same rights Jefferson eloquently penned.
Women and minorities face obstacles seen and unseen, written into the very fabric of our nation. Our world. White men wrote the rules at one time, and we are still living by them today. When you listen to Fox News or hear soundbites from candidates like Rick Santorum, it’s easy to lose hope, and give up on the human race. The obstacles still seem insurmountable, and the protracted war un-winnable. And yet, think of those lynching pictures I witnessed, with the shocking faces of the curious, amused and entertained spectators looking on as a human being hung lifeless and desecrated. Then think of all those white people that gathered with signs to block a little black girl from integrating at an all white school. Think of the KKK, with its once swelling active membership. And then think about today. Sure there’s still bigotry, but I’d bet that over half those people who peered our from those pictures evolved in some small way over their lifetimes, and learned to at least tolerate the rights and liberties of their once maligned black neighbors. Some likely came to support and befriend African Americans. How do I know this? Because history has proven that the entrenched racial hatred which once permeated the South, and the majority of those who once oppressed blacks and supported segregation. eventually came to change their opinions, as their views on race grew and evolved. Sure, there’s still racism, but considering it’s been less than fifty years, that’s incredible progress. And yet, still not enough.
We must remember those faces of hatred and bile and remember that even some of them managed to change, and see the humanity in their fellow man. As we move forward, let’s try and remember the humanity of those who have and still would oppress us, and be better than they ever were, and kinder then they might deserve. They may be our foe now, but tomorrow they might be our ally. Hatred is learned, and though challenging, it can be unlearned. When we use the hashtag #LoveWins, we must try not to fiercely hold onto that love, but extend it to those who would not likely extend it to us. That’s the true definition of love. And only through love can any of us truly hope to live.
We must never give up hope. I always take comfort in the wise words of those who came before me, so I’d like to share a few meaningful quotes:
“I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” —Galileo Galilei
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” —Nelson Mandela
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi
“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.” —Isaac Asimov
“I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruits of his labor, so far as it in no way interferes with any other man’s rights.” —Abraham Lincoln
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” —Barack Obama
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson