|Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries|
|Tuesday, 15 May 2001 18:00|
(Editor’s note: News Junkie is off this week. This column originally ran last year.)
One day when you were a little girl, you came home from school and asked me what the word “gay” meant.
I don’t remember exactly what I told you, but it must have been pretty satisfactory because the subject didn’t come up again until yesterday, which was 12 years later.
I wish all our conversations went so well.
Somewhere in the years between, we talked about another word – prejudice – a concept you had trouble understanding because no one you knew thought that way. I remember saying that the idea of prejudice would seem pretty obsolete to your generation some day, like those bizarre old public-service films that began, “At the first sign of an atomic blast, hide under your desk!”
That was the same era, by the way, when our country’s leaders were still arguing about black kids and white kids sitting next to each other in the same classroom. I’m glad you missed those days; I wish I had.
The thing is, no one thinks of himself or herself as a bigot. On the contrary, they all believe they’re acting in society’s best interest, doing what God intended, heading off some dangerous threat. That’s why whenever some group is really getting slammed, you’ll always find a well-spoken crackpot trying to make a bunch of nonsense sound logical.
Your grandmother probably remembers when Jews were discriminated against in all sorts of publicly accepted ways, not by the Nazis, but right here in America. The first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, had to listen to the intellectuals of his day saying he was unqualified because he had an “Oriental” rather than an “Occidental” mind.
I know. You couldn’t even make this stuff up.
A hundred years ago, in that enlightened time when they were still putting cocaine in soft drinks, America’s leading opinion-makers agreed that no sensible woman should want to vote, or hold an important job outside the house, or earn as much as a man.
And a few years before that, your great-great-grandfather, looking for a job, would have run into signs that said “NINA.” That stood for “No Irish Need Apply.”
All this went through my head when you asked me yesterday about gay rights. You’d heard they were “special” rights, and you wanted to know what that meant.
Well, here goes.
There’s been some version of a bill in Illinois for about 20 years that would guarantee gay people – along with every other citizen – these “special” rights: not to be discriminated against when renting an apartment, buying a house, applying for a loan, getting a job, or, for that matter, sitting down at a restaurant to have dinner. That’s the whole bill, which you can read for yourself on the Internet. Pretty extreme stuff, huh?
It hasn’t passed though, because a lot of otherwise fair-minded legislators are afraid of their bigoted constituents who, in turn, are afraid of gay people “taking over” (whatever that means), or afraid they’ll convert straight teenagers like you (I’ll bet all the gay people you know were born that way), or afraid that gay couples in some inexplicable way are a threat to traditional mom-and-dad families like ours. And unfortunately, plenty of folks in the professional-prejudice business want to keep everybody afraid.
You’re smart enough to research all this for yourself, and you should. But try something: Take any of the anti-homosexual arguments you’re hearing these days and substitute the word “woman,” or “African-American,” or “Latino,” or “Jew,” or any of a dozen other minority groups for the word “gay” and then see if it doesn’t sound a little like: At the first sign of an atomic blast, hide under your desk.
Read this letter to your own daughter someday. She’ll never believe the times you lived in.
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