Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LGBT rights; why I give a damn, and hope you do too

My experience in LGBT rights is that, when you are not a large or visible minority, trying to get someone to actually give a damn is pretty hard. Which would be fine if all things were equal; but they are not. LGBT individuals rely constantly on the goodwill and trust of retailers, employers, police, fire and rescue, local and national governments, school officials, customs agents – basically the dozens of interactions with people that make up a day (those don’t count the people who actually hate you...because you’re still gay and breathing). The problem is that when 80% of the population doesn’t care when 5%-10% feel they have the right to treat LGBT people as sub-human at worst or an irritant at best, then you can end up with a pretty shitty life. Of course if we were to believe the stats of the dozens of states which have voted to amend the law to make sure LGBT people can never have the same rights as couples heterosexuals do then it would be 30% don’t care about the 60-70% who care enough to go and vote about it.

Let me give a few concrete examples. If you are a LGBT teen in North America, there is about a 50% chance you will try and kill yourself because of the environment at school; you will hear anti-gay comments multiple times a day, you and those suspected of being gay will be harassed about 5 times more than any other group. 1 in 3 will be physically harassed, 1 in 5 will be beaten (sexual orientation is the number one motivator for youth assault in BC – woo hoo!). And you have a 1 in 3 chance of dropping out of school, regardless. Oh, and there won’t be any specific policy page regarding sexual orientation/gender identity harassment, and there won’t be any teacher training. Why? Because, most LGBT kids are closeted, those who can be, while certain parents, on the other hand, will start immediately screaming if any policies are included, and they will have press releases. One recent example is in Oklahoma City, where school officials removed the topic of homophobic bullying before printing (too much hassle…for the school board; ongoing hassle for the gay teens). If you live near me, don’t slow down in Surray or Richmond, BC which have FOUR different parent groups to “combat the erosion of heterosexuality in the schools” and is notable for having an anti-gay straight alliance protest at a school in a district which did not have a gay straight alliance. One group, the CASJFVA, gives annual awards to those teachers and parents who have combated homosexuality in schools (constructive things like book banning, sending kids to ex-gay counseling, opposing harassment policies).

As Gayprof, pointed out, gay people become VERY QUICKLY attuned to situations of danger; situations which most people simply walk by because it is NOT dangerous for them (like having a police officer walk toward you while holding your partner’s hand). Last night, while fencing on the strip, I could hear the foil coach telling “gay jokes.” It’s not the first time (lesbian jokes come up too). And while I may not be in immediate danger, being at a club where older members are teaching younger ones that LGBT people don’t get the same respect as other humans does make me pretty confident about the concern of those at the club if/when a member does decide to insult or harass me: none at all.

Let me tell you a couple stories. Last year Linda and I flew into Belfast and stayed at the hotel at the airport, taking the bus into day during daylight and back again. Why? Because one of the Christian Protestant militias had vowed to rid Northern Ireland of all gays and was in the midst of their campaign; breaking kneecaps of gays, setting fire to the apartments of gay couples. So we were very careful downtown, not just about touching but about all those little actions that give away you are a couple. And even so there were some places, public places, places in the guidebook, that were simply too risky to enter. Pretty wild, huh? Actually, not at all; it was completely ordinary. If you avoided everywhere LGBT crimes occurred regularly, you wouldn’t get out much. At home, our friends had windows smashed, people yelled things at us, our car was vandalized every six weeks – this is normal. Everything has risks to be weighed, Linda sold some things at a garage sale, and a guy ended up standing there yelling about her going to hell. Now hundreds of people went by and only one started screaming and damning her...but 25 stood by and watched. If I call the police, will they come? If they come, will they take us seriously or treat us like a joke? Police departments CAN be understanding, or they CAN be total jerks, so can Custom Agents. That’s life (a slightly sucky life that could be better...hint, hint!).

I used to think that once people knew what LGBT people faced, things would change; but every year at least 25 gay men in the US are killed in hate crimes, some tortured as much or more than Matthew Shepard, even more LGBT people are killed in those states that don’t count sexual orientation/gender expression as a hate crime (or whole countries, like CANADA that don’t). Instead of hate crime, typically the local paper reports that a well known small town gay man in Alabama, found in the woods, was tortured for three days before being set on fire. “There is no evidence this is a hate crime” the local Sheriff states. In Britain, at our local gay bar the police only guaranteed protection for the first 10 feet, and the “lads” ride back and forth across the street, yelling out anti-gay slurs, waiting to see if anyone would leave alone.

I remember the day I knew I had lost my job; I was talking to the regional manager, trying to explain why asking me who I had slept with during divisional meetings wasn’t appropriate, and why I thought the current management position of allowing anti-gay slurs from customers “expressing their opinion” toward me wasn’t appropriate. I told the manager a story, about a recent case in the States of a best straight friend who shot his gay friend in the head when he was told his friend was not only gay, but HIV+. The straight friend later didn’t understand why he was arrested; the guy was gay...and HIV+. The male regional manager sitting in front of me said, “Well, he (the gay guy) did lie, I mean if he had told him the truth...” while the female division manager said, “We once found out a woman here had HIV...that was very tragic (she was fired).” I knew right then, it was like someone hitting me in the gut. Ahh, the idea that gays and straights should be treated with equal respect, what a fool I was. When your regional manager thinks that if you don’t tell your friend you are gay then you KINDA deserve being shot in the head, you know that little thinks like being called “dyke” aren’t going to matter.

The truth is that nothing gays or lesbians could do by design could wreck as much annual stress and damage as what is done by heterosexual society’s apathy to injustice. I could say that by educating yourself, actively stepping in you are saving your son or daughter, granddaughter or niece who hasn’t come out of the closet yet, except that family members are usually the first to turn nasty. When it comes to my sexual orientation, I can’t change it and I won’t hide it (not anymore). I’m not a sexual predator or pedophile, I’m not unnatural or evil, but unless some more people stand up every time those things are suggested, who will know otherwise? Even Minnesota, known for their advanced and sweeping gay rights legislation made specific exceptions in employment saying any employer dealing with youth, children or role models for youth are exempt from hiring equally. Because the last thing youth need to learn is that LGBT people can be role models? That life doesn’t have to be a living hell as an LGBT youth growing up? No, no...keep the children safe, safe from what? US? Or the view of us that is lodged in your head?


Yoga Korunta said...

Elizabeth, the risks you face were unknown to me. Neo Nazi-Puritans are in charge of US gov and we all live in fear.

Wiccachicky said...

This post makes me want to cry - mostly because it's a lot of stuff I want to say on a daily basis but never seem to. I miss being in a place where I am accepted for who I am...

GayProf said...

A good post, but what are your ideas about how we can change society?

Elizabeth McClung said...

truthfully - I don't know how apathy can be changed except by continuing to talk about how it hurts, no matter how annoying that is to society - on a personal level, I hope to live to see the day that I can bring various public figures to tribunals for crimes against humanity for the things they have said and incited against LGBT people.

Warmongers Anonymous said...

Please read this and tell me what your response is. I'm not looking to insult anyone, I just want an honest answer.