Thursday, April 17, 2014

Marriage equality did not end heterosexual privilege

This week is the first anniversary of the passing of Marriage Equality in New Zealand. Despite the fact that we have had civil unions for gay couples since 2004, this was an important step for our nation not only domestically but in our reputation in the international community. We showed ourselves to be a country that stood up for the civil rights of all people regardless of their sexual orientation. This is a big step because protection of equal rights under the law is important in changing society's perception and attitudes. Let me explain that further. I was at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library last week celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. One of the great leaders in the movement Representative John Lewis quoted Martin Luther King  who said "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."  Let me re-iterate it. The law is important. Government's role in protecting people is important. But how can you make a man love someone they hate?

We live in a world of heterosexual privilege.  I'm on the steering committee for the Harvey Milk Society at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and being part of this organization has made me realize the privileged position I am in every single day. My family has asked me why I would want to be part of a LGBTQA organization and have even gone as far as to say that people will assume I am gay. If that's the worst thing that could happen to me, I think I am pretty lucky. I will never have to 'come out' to anyone. In every conversation that I ever have about love, everyone will always assume I am talking about loving a man. I never have to awkwardly explain my sexual preference to anyone or be ashamed of who I love. Gay people have been beaten, made homeless, ostracized to their mental detriment, kept out of jobs, kept from participating in society, and killed for sole reason of being gay. Their civil rights have been denied to them because of an innate characteristic over which they have no control. (And before you scream 'lifestyle choice' to me, I also happen to believe that people have the right to choose their lifestyle. Why should another person tell me how I should live my life to the fullest? But that's another post.) Law is one way to correct that wrong, but there's more that needs to be done. 

If you think there is a gay agenda out there working to ensure equality, you better believe that it is going to keep doing that. Why? Because the only way to have equal rights is to not be the 'other'. The law is absolutely essential to that, but a change of attitude requires more than the law. It requires that media articles cover gay issues as life issues and TV shows/movies/magazines have to work hard to make sure that gay couples are represented. Their stories have to be told and shared. Gay rights have been accepted in the mainstream only in the last 10 years or so. Even when I was in high school, the conversation was at a very different place. The marginalization that they have faced leading up to this day has to be addressed. Gays are not underrepresented because they do not exist, they are underrepresented because we heterosexuals make sure of it. We created the culture of man-woman marriage, a concept that is actually relatively new in terms of human history. The narrative within which we live is a straight narrative. If you are a woman or a person of color, you know what that means. It means that you constantly have to fit your story into the white male story. Your story is in context of something that has already been there for thousands of years. Marriage equality did not end heterosexual privilege overnight just like the Civil Rights Act did not end white male privilege. We have to keep working towards inclusion and work against the heterosexual narrative if we want to live in an inclusive society where everyone is free to be who they are.  

A (slightly unrelated) recommended reading: 
-How the US President came to supporting marriage equality: This article details all the behind the scenes wrangling including the role that Vice President Biden played and the role of the First Lady Michelle Obama in getting the President to say it.  

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