Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Taking Stock at Pride

Celebrating much progress but we have a long way to go

By Steve Charing

It has been nearly four full decades since the Stonewall uprising erupted against the New York police during that iconic steamy weekend in June. A vast majority of the Pride-goers in Baltimore who will be attending the traditional parade, block party and festival the weekend of June 21-22 have no recollection of that incident, which symbolically transformed the gay rights movement. Sadly, of those who are aware of it, many do not appreciate its historic significance or even care. But they have indeed benefited from the progress that resulted.

At the time of "Stonewall" most gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals lived shadowy, closeted and fearful lives. If they were discovered, many would be fired from their jobs, kicked out of apartments and disowned by their families. Touching or dancing with each other in gay establishments was against the law. Bar raids were commonplace. So were beatings.

Since those dark, rainbow-less days, there has been monumental progress. Attitudes towards the lgbt population are slowly improving. Sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court. Many states, local governments, corporations and universities have anti-discrimination laws on the books. Two states now permit the heretofore unthinkable: same-sex marriage.

Young people are coming out at an earlier age with a plethora of resources and support groups to turn to as they make this acknowledgement. Even straight young people are accepting lgbt folks with increasing regularity; they are indeed our most valued allies for paving the way for future progress.

Politicians are now coming out of the closet and are filling legislative and executive seats in greater numbers. For the first time, presidential candidates support recognition of same-sex couples, even if they cannot bring themselves to favor marriage.

During the ensuing years since Stonewall, lgbt organizations, books, magazines, newspapers and websites have sprouted up like April’s dandelions. Television shows, movies and theater routinely portray lgbt characters in a positive light instead of the stereotypical brooding, suicidal, depressed souls as had been depicted years ago.

Yes, we should take stock of our progress during Pride weekend. But please know we still have a long way to go.

To many in society and in government, despite the gains, we remain second-class citizens. Except for Massachusetts and now California, gays and lesbians do not enjoy the over 1,300 rights and benefits that marriage confers on heterosexual couples. Our nation has no problem allowing murderers, rapists, child molesters and bank robbers to marry, but gays and lesbians are denied the privilege.

Our current president saw fit to use time during a State of the Union speech to push for a constitutional amendment that would forever ban same-sex marriage. Had it been successful, it would have marked the first and only occasion where discrimination was enshrined in our nation’s most hallowed document.

Further insults to the lgbt community are hurled in the form of the abominable "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy that prevents openly gay and lesbian servicemembers from defending their country. As the military struggles to maintain adequate troop levels during this detestable war in Iraq, the Pentagon has lowered the entrance standards to allow ex-cons, drug abusers and those with below-standard intelligence to represent the U.S. in battle. Even non-citizens of the U.S. are permitted to fight. But not gay folks.

Exemplary performing gays and lesbians—especially those with much-needed linguistic skills—have been discharged under the policy, which hurts us in the war on terror. To the military and many elected officials, gays and lesbians are the lowest of the low.

We still do not have a national law that protects lgbt people from discrimination in workplace hiring and promotions. It is a stain on our country that work performance takes a back seat to prejudice and religious dogma.

And we cannot openly walk hand-in-hand with our loved one in most places lest we get smacked over the head with a baseball bat. Hate crimes legislation to include attacks on lgbt people is stalled in Congress.

These are the reasons we must continue to fight. With an Obama administration and a more heavily tilted Democratic Congress, there would be hope that the Employment Non-discrimination Act and the Hate Crimes bills may have a better chance of passage. There should also be movement to end Don’t’ Ask, Don’t Tell.

We must continue to work with our legislators—both local and national—to make them aware of the harm these discriminatory policies have caused us and the nation. We should not ever, ever think of ourselves as second-class citizens and should be proud of our accomplishments and our contributions to our neighborhoods, to our places of employment and to society.

We have made much progress over the 39 years since Stonewall. We have traveled the uncertain road from rejection to tolerance to acceptance. And now full equality is clearly within our grasp.

There is reason to be optimistic if we can attract more people, especially young people, to be involved in the struggle. We should reflect on what we have gone through, where we are today, and where we want to be tomorrow. This is what Pride should be about—not just the partying and the hoopla. Let’s be proud. Let’s acknowledge that we should not take a back seat to anyone.
Happy Pride!

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