“Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group.”
—Coretta Scott King
Several years ago, I published an article in PopMatters discussing the way men are frequently portrayed in sitcoms and commercials as inept and lazy (“Male Bashing on TV”). The article seemed to resonate with a number of readers, as I received more mail for that piece than anything else I ever wrote. Most of the mail, from men and women alike, was positive, but there were a few writers that didn’t care for the piece. One woman, for instance, lambasted me for not discussing the appalling treatment “womyn” had been subjected to on TV, while another was upset that Native American characters were underrepresented on TV.
Both writers are correct. Historically, women (or womyn) have been relegated to subservient roles on TV, I fact that I did acknowledge in the article, and you count on one hand the number of lead or supporting Native American characters that have graced our TV screens. Nonetheless, despite the accuracy of these writer’s observations, they didn’t recognize the basic premise of my article: men are portrayed negatively on TV too frequently. That doesn’t mean other demographic groups have always been represented positively, or at all, or that men have not dominated television portrayals over the years.
I am frequently reminded of these letters while working on research for this column. Far too often I come across letters, articles, and blogs which put forth the argument that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people need to just shut the hell up, because we haven’t had it at tough as… (blacks, women, Jews, Asians, Native Americans, Muslims, fill in the demographic characteristic of your choosing). Take this post on the Femmenoir website, for example:
Look, there is no way that the civil rights movement of people of color should be bundled with the gay rights movement. I personally do not care what a person’s sexual orientation is - However, to liken sexual orientation with the oppression of our people in the Western world cheapens the unwarranted death of millions of black/colored people who were killed just for being black or persons of color. Sexual orientation is a personal matter that never suffered the bigotry of self that has plagued people of color for hundreds of years.
Again, this writer misses the point. Groups that suffer discrimination are automatically bound together, in that they have been denied basic rights, be it life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. There isn’t a scorecard of social injustice that makes one group more worthy of equality than others.
The argument is made that since GLBT individuals haven’t suffered genocide like Jews (we have), forced servitude like blacks (we have), or marginalization like women (we have), we have no right to complain. Right? We should just be happy with the minor little discriminations thrown our way and go about our business, because we don’t really know what suffering is. Right? Perhaps a little history lesson is in order. (The following information is from a variety of sources, far too many to list here.)
Early civilizations such as the Greeks seemed to be somewhat tolerant of homosexuality, but that began to change in the Dark Ages in Europe. Homosexuality was outlawed by the sons on Constantine in 342 AD and made a criminal offense in Spain in 589. By 1300, engaging in homosexual activity was a crime punishable by death throughout most of Europe. It was in that same year that an English treatise mandated that homosexuals be burned alive.
It is from this practice that the derogatory term “faggot” is believed to have emerged. In England and Spain, homosexual men were forced to lay bundles of sticks, known as faggots, at the feet of witches who were about to be burned. These men were then doused with oil or other flammable liquids and forced to lie on top of the faggots, where they were set on fire along with the kindling. Perhaps realizing how barbaric this practice was, Henry VIII of England changed the penalty for homosexuality to hanging in 1533.
It wasn’t until 1861 that English law again changed the penalty for being gay; death was no longer the prescribed sanction, but imprisonment with hard labor was. Oscar Wilde is the most famous to have seen his livelihood destroyed for experiencing the “love that dare not speak its name”, but he is only one of thousands – or more.
Homosexuality remained a crime throughout most of Europe and the United States well into the 20th century, peaking with the round-up of gays in Nazi Germany. Homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle to identify themselves, a symbol still used by the gay community today in subversion of its meaning, appropriated in defiance by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
In 1936, the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion: Special Office (II S) was created, and in the following years, about 100,000 gay men were arrested. An estimate of how many homosexuals perished in the concentration camps is uncertain, with numbers ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Often, gay men were also labeled with other tags for condemnation (Jew, Catholic, Pole), so we will never know the true number. Lesbians were most often labeled as “asocial” or “prostitute”.
When Allied forces liberated the concentration camps, most prisoners were released, except homosexuals, who, under the guidelines of the Allied Military Government of Germany, were made to finish out their original prison sentences imposed by the Nazis. In fact, the Nazi laws dealing with homosexuality weren’t repealed until 1969, and it wasn’t until the last few years that the German government publicly acknowledged the wrongful murder and imprisonment of gay men and women.
In the United States, homosexuality remained a crime throughout the 50 states until 1962, when Illinois became the first state in the Union to decriminalize it. In fact until then, it was not only illegal to engage in homosexual behavior, it was illegal to hire homosexuals for government jobs, thanks to an executive order issued in 1953 by President Eisenhower. Many state and local governments followed suit, as well as numerous corporations. Some of these hiring bans remain on the books today, although Wisconsin was the first state to break with the ban, passing a law in 1982 that abolished discrimination in hiring.
Nevertheless, that’s all “ancient” history. In the United States today, a gay individual is no more in danger of being executed for being gay than a black child is of being sold into slavery or a woman is of being denied the right to vote because of her gender. (Unless some religious conservatives, such as the Reverend Fred Phelps and author George Grant get their way in calling for the return of executing homosexuals.) Still, our pasts shape our perspectives and the subcultures we create. For instance, the strong lobbying force that exists within the GLBT community can be directly linked to the early days of the AIDS crisis. With the government turning a deaf ear to our suffering—it was six years into his presidency before Reagan even gave a speech on AIDS, by which time 40,000 Americans were dead—the gay community had no choice but to band together to take care of its own.
Regardless, it’s what happens in the here and now that matters, and we’ve made so much progress since days gone by, haven’t we? After all, opinion polls show an increasing tolerance for homosexuals. (Gee, thanks.) However, the sad truth is that homosexuals continue to face considerable hardships. Most troubling is the violence still directed at the GLBT community. We may no longer have to fear public execution, but GLBT individuals are hardly safe in the US, let alone other countries.
The most famous incident of anti-gay violence in the US is the brutal murder of Matthew Sheppard, the college student whose death in Wyoming garnered national attention. Unknown to most of the public are Chanel Chandler of Fresno, California, a transgendered man stabbed to death with a beer bottle before having her house set on fire, and James Ward of Arkansas, a gay man stabbed to death by an 18-year-old. Both died within a couple of months of Sheppard, but their cases went unreported in the national media. The same is true regarding the case of Leonard Vines in Baltimore from about the same time. Vines was shot six times by a group of 10, but was fortunate enough to survive the attack.
Another well-known case is that of Brandon Teena, a cross-dressing woman whose murder in Nebraska was featured in the Oscar-winning film Boys Don’t Cry. However, Teena was just one of 68 GLBT persons murdered in 1984, according to an Out magazine article featured on the GodhatesFredPhelps website. According to the FBI, there were 685 hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 1984.
Despite the growing tolerance of sexual-orientation identity in the US, or perhaps because of it, that number has been on the rise. In 2005, the last year for which the FBI has reported numbers, there were 1,171 hate crimes offenses (23 of which were anti-heterosexual, and the remainder aimed at the GLBT community). Only blacks suffered more hate crimes (3,200), but the reported number of hate crimes against GLBT individuals is low. According to the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project Report for 1996 reported by the National Organization of Women’s (NOW’s) homophobia page, up to 80 percent of sexual orientation hate crimes go unreported, because individuals fear being “outed”, or law enforcement doesn’t accurately collect data. If this is correct, then a worst-case scenario puts the number of sexual orientation hate crimes in 2005 at 5,855.
However, violence isn’t the only problem facing the GLBT community. Various journal articles report that homophobia affects the quality of medical care GLBT individuals receive, the level of assistance they can expect from social workers, the quality of education they get on all levels (secondary and collegiate), the degree to which police officers are willing to investigate crimes against them, the manner in which they can worship, the types of careers into which they will be accepted, the sorts of recreational activities and organizational memberships they can pursue, the availability of nursing home and hospice care available to them, and the amount of acceptance they can expect to receive from their own families.
So the fight for gay rights isn’t just about the right to get married (although it should be noted, that while gay couples can designate one another as beneficiaries, and if they’re lucky, their extended families won’t cause them any grief over such matters, they cannot collect one cent on their partner’s social security benefits, as married heterosexual couples can). It’s about being able to walk through each day of one’s life without being disparaged by some group or being made to feel less than others. It’s about getting a good education and a good job in the field of one’s choice. It’s about living where you want to live. It’s about knowing that if you are sick, you’ll be taken care of. It’s about not living in fear.
ACT UP - After Stonewall
Tragically, GLBT individuals aren’t the only ones in this country who face these obstacles. Blacks are followed by store security, women are paid less than men, Muslims are kicked off planes, Native Americans are stereotyped by sports mascots, and on and on. It seems that no matter who are you are in the US, someone hates you for your race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, lifestyle. The basic desire – the basic human right—to be respected and treated with dignity, no matter who we are, is what binds all who face discrimination.
So my response to the writer from the Femmenoir website and those who hold similar views is this: it doesn’t matter who has suffered the most. In the end, there will be no door prize for the group that has shed the most tears, seen the most deaths, endured the worst injustices, or overcome the greatest obstacles. It does matter if your neighbor is subjected to discrimination, because no matter who the victim of prejudice is, the mere fact that there is a victim lessens us all.