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The Elephant in the Room (No, Not the Pink One)

In an editorial published earlier this week, Leonard Pitts expresses his disappointment that “African Americans were crucial to the passage of” Proposition 8 in California. His stance is that it’s a civil rights issue. His writing is fair-minded but not lacking emotion.

My only concern is with one of his counter-arguments. Although gay people have suffered similar day-to-day injustices, they haven’t, according to Pitts, gone through the horrors of “mass kidnap or mass enslavement.” This simply isn’t true. The Nazi regime had a policy aimed at changing the behavior of homosexuals, who were taken to concentration camps where they were examined, intimidated, castrated, and, if their behavior didn’t change, murdered.

It was an extreme version (one of many) of the ways LGBT people have been oppressed in our day-to-day lives, in which revealing that we’re gay can result in insult, injury, or even death. Although the acts are against individuals, the oppression is no less systematic. Tolerance of LGBT people has depended on the kindness of strangers. It’s classic variable-ratio reinforcement, making it difficult to tell when or if you’ll be punished or accepted for standing, speaking, or being out. The more comfortable you get, the more chances you take. No harm done, if you’re lucky.

People who think they’re accepting often are not. A few days ago, while waiting for a lecture to begin, I overheard a student in the row in front of me talking about her experience in a writing workshop. She said she knew something “was wrong with” the main character in another student’s story. When someone told her the character was gay, she said she “felt, like, ‘Duh,'” because the character was reading a magazine about home decorating. She said, “I should have known.”

She saw me looking at her.

“Oh, is that the sign that someone is gay?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “I have some friends at home who are, you know, gay. And they don’t care about that stuff, but two of them talk like they’re gay. You know, there are just ways to tell.”

“Perhaps that’s true in poorly written fiction,” I said.

I couldn’t help but glare at her, but maybe it came across as squinting, because she didn’t seem bothered that I interjected. I wanted her to apologize or tell me to fuck off or something, but she just looked at me blankly. The young woman she sat with turned around to look at me a few times, as if she were watching a really slow game of tennis. Someone sat down next to them, and soon after that, the lecture began.

The mundane expressions of ignorance nag at me as much as the simmering fear that some historical worst-case scenario will happen to me. The feeling annoys me, and I admit that I allow myself to become desensitized sometimes.

But it doesn’t last long. I don’t like being dismissed, either as a minor character in history or as comic relief in a story. If you talk about me as if I’m not here, as if I haven’t been here as long as you, and if you suggest that I don’t belong here, I’m going to say something about it. It’s a reflex.

Some argue that the most effective way to get widespread support for marriage equality is to let people get to know us so they can see us as people. First, though, we have to get them to see us.


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