A NEW YORK Times front page story Sunday marvels at the fact that no big-name law firms signed up to represent the anti-gay marriage forces in the upcoming Supreme Court hearing.
Other stories, in The Times and elsewhere, have pointed out how quickly and forcefully CEOs of Wal-Mart, Apple and other large corporations spoke out when Indiana, Arkansas and other states passed laws designed to allow their citizens to discriminate against fellow citizens based on their sexual orientation, under the guise of religious liberty.
Some of those pieces posed the question: why are business leaders and other prominent people so willing to go to bat for gays and lesbians yet remain silent when the reproductive rights of women are trampled upon or when immigrants are denied basic human dignity – or when cop after cop shoots and kills unarmed people – mostly men and mostly of color.
It’s a valid question. Why is Wal-Mart so quick to come to the defense of gays and lesbians when states attempt to take away their rights yet remain silent when blacks or Hispanics and other minorities are denied due process – and living wages?
In his Times piece, reporter Adam Liptak writes:
“In dozens of interviews, lawyers and law professors said the imbalance in legal firepower in the same-sex marriage cases resulted from a conviction among many lawyers that opposition to such unions is bigotry akin to racism. But there were economic calculations, too. Law firms that defend traditional marriage may lose clients and find themselves at a disadvantage in hiring new lawyers.”
No doubt those are legitimate reasons for this phenomenon. But there is another, more fundamental reason, that is rarely explored. That is the fact that over the last couple of decades, gay men and women have come out of their closets in droves and — guess what? — these men and women happen to be employed by Apple and Wal-Mart and Citibank and other large corporations. And – yes – law firms of all sizes across the country.
Such has been the pace of coming out that no one working anywhere in America can truthfully say that he or she does not know a gay person. And guess what happens when you get to know people? You discover that they are not the monsters your momma or your papa or your preacher had convinced you they were.
And the next time you’re called upon to decide whether you will tolerate discrimination against these people, chances are that you’re going to balk. It’s much easier to say “gays are sinners” than it is to tell your co-workers — who are as qualified and as able and as hard working as you are, and with whom you’ve worked side by side and gone out to lunch with and maybe even socialized with after work: “Sorry, but my Bible tells me you don’t deserve to have the same rights as I do.”
That is exactly what the promoters of the mantra, “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” in the 80s and 90s predicted would happen if most closet doors were shattered. They were right! Some of us had our doubts, but they were right.
Gays and lesbians do not yet have full equality. There are still too many people losing their jobs because of their sexuality and there are still way too many teen-agers taking their lives because of bullying and fear.
Much work remains to be done, but the war is over. Equality and respect are inevitable. That is truly something to rejoice and take pride in.
BUT WHAT ABOUT the poor people who increasingly are being stigmatized and dehumanized by the rightwing zealots who control most state Legislatures and Congress?
What about the poor women who find themselves with an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy and cannot get an abortion because of the vindictive and cruel laws that have closed down reproductive clinics around the nation?
What about the black men who still don’t know if it’s safe to go out in public, who might find themselves at the ugly and lethal end of a cop’s gun simply because of the color of their skin. (A good friend, an African American, tells a harrowing story of going downstairs one morning not long ago, after his wife had gone to work, to check on why their burglar alarm had gone off. He soon found himself handcuffed outside in freezing weather with a cop’s gun pointed at his head. No matter how many times he insisted he lived in the house and that all the cops had to do was go inside to find his ID, they kept him outside, freezing in his pajamas, until they were finally convinced he was the homeowner. This happened not in Ferguson, Missouri or in the Deep South, but in a middle-class neighborhood in liberal northern Virginia!)
How good are their chances of convincing the Wal-Marts and Apples and IBMs and Wells Fargos and other big companies and big law firms that these people too deserve champions, that they too deserve a life where they don’t have to beg for dignity and decency?
Not very good. Not very good at all.
The reason is that, unlike gays and lesbians, poor men and women of all colors cannot come out of the closet to claim their place in American society. They can’t come out because they’ve been out as long as they’ve been on this earth yet they have remained invisible. Nobody in the big law firms or at Wal-Mart headquarters will ever have the chance to get to know them the way they have gotten to know the gays and lesbians among them.
Today, almost everyone in America’s privileged classes can claim to have at least one gay friend. Very few of them us can claim to have friends who are on welfare, living on below-minimum wages, immigrants, victims of police brutality or in need of low-cost reproductive services.
For the most part, the only poor people or immigrants white-collar types know are those who come in after hours to empty their trash cans and vacuum their office floors, or the underpaid maids and babysitters and gardeners who come in while they are at work to mow their lawns, clean their toilets and change their kids’ diapers. Yes, they have interactions with them, but how well do they know them? How well can any master, no matter how benevolent and well intentioned, know his servant? How comfortable will these servants be in asking their employers to take up their cause for economic justice? And what would be the answer from their employers if they were to ask?
How sympathetic will a homeowner be to a request to join the cause for decent wages when he or she is the one paying miserable wages?
Similarly, how sympathetic can the (mostly male) CEOs be to champion the cause of reproductive rights when they don’t know anybody who has had to suffer at the hands of a back-alley abortionist because the anti-life “pro-lifers” have closed down all the abortion clinics? Yes, they have wives and girlfriends and sisters, but these are women who will never have to rely on backroom abortionists. They can afford all the reproductive care they need.
SO, WE CAN – and should — marvel at the great strides we have made when it comes to gay and lesbian rights, and we can pat ourselves on the back for playing a part in making it possible.
But we should be careful about how smug and satisfied we are as long as we allow the “others” to remain a largely hidden group of people. As long as we remain satisfied with the status quo that demands that these people take care of our needs while we pretend that they have no needs.
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