Winning civil rights victories one open closet door at a time March 21, 2010Posted by Evil Bender in LGBT Rights, News and politics.
During one of my first semesters as an instructor of Freshman Composition courses, a student came by my office to talk about her paper, in which she was grappling with a contentious social issue: she was writing about why gay people should be allowed to adopt. As we discussed her paper, the conversation turned to her upbringing.
“I was raised religious,” this young woman told me, “and I used to believe homosexuality was wrong. But now that I’ve met gay people, I just can’t believe that any more.”
What fascinates me about my student’s story is that no complex theological or philosophical argument won her over, nor did appeals to fairness or equality, nor the mountain of evidence of the fitness of gay parents. What made the difference for her was putting a face on the issue. Once she knew gay people, it became impossible for her to believe that they were evil and immoral. Discrimination against queer people became impossible for her because what she’d been taught to believe in the abstract could not survive the reality of what she saw in her gay friends.
I am reminded of this story today because a personal hero of mine, James Randi, has come out of the closet. Mr Randi could have easily chosen to remain silent on this issue, and that would probably have been easier. But by coming out, he does a great service to humanity, joining the increasingly visible and vocal group of LGBT people and their allies who, merely by existing and being honest about who they are, strike a blow against hatred and intolerance. Bigotry will still exist, of course; plenty of people will be comfortable with their hate no matter what. But many more people, finding that their families and friends include people with a wide variety of interests, beliefs and gender identities, will start to rethink their biases. Even those personally uncomfortable with homosexuality will increasingly find themselves unwilling to deny their friends and family the rights that they enjoy. Simply put, people who know gay people are less likely to be homophobes.*
So I would like to thank Mr. Randi and the millions like him who have exposed themselves to scorn, hatred, and even potential violence for the simple and brave act of openly being themselves. As a straight man, I’m sure I don’t know how hard that decision can be, but I do know that each person who makes it opens the door wider for others, and everyone who steps out through that door strikes a blow against hatred and intolerance.
We still have a lot of work to do, but the day is coming when our society will be a much safer place for our LGBT citizens. That day is still a long way off, and the bigots will always be with us. But they will not always be victorious. And on today, at the very beginning of Spring, that knowledge continues to be a source of great comfort to me.
*Yes, I am aware that this may be merely a correlation, not a matter of causation. It’s possible there is a different explanation for the data; yet the data strongly suggest that merely knowing someone who is openly gay is strongly linked to being more progressive on gay rights issues. This is to be expected on this issue, just like others: intolerance thrives in isolation, but is much harder to maintain once you start putting names and faces on those people one believes they hate.