Thursday, March 05, 2009

While we Wait, People are Dying.

Written by Joe Decker, March 4, 2009. Copied with permission.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


Y'know, I could quibble with a lot of those words, y'all know that I don't believe in a "Creator", even the Deist one invoked here. But plus or minus a metaphor, I believe in the meaning of those words as I understand them. Of course, society's understanding of those words has changed, over the years, the folks who penned these words were not uniformly against slavery, did not support women's suffrage, and so on. We've come to understand, over the years, that "men" her refers not just to white people, not just to penis-bearing individuals.

And so we are coming to learn, as a society, that queer people such as myself are "men" in this sense, too. Step by laborious step we battle toward legal recognition for what the founding documents of this country and state promise in clear language, an inalienable right to equal protection under the law, a right so basic that without it, the government lacks a moral justification for it's very existence.

But this laborious battle is taking too long. It takes too long because while we wait, people die. While we wait, people die.

This was not so obvious to me a few years back. It should have been, but it should be obvious to everyone now.

It's certainly no secret that our lives are taken, often at the hand of society's homophobia, although the the size of the problem seems to be one.

Teen suicides provide one of the clearest indications of this. While only a few percent of children, no more than ten percent, are GLBT, fully one-third of teen suicides are committed by queer teens. And the fundamental reason that GLBT teens are so much more likely to take their own lives is simple, it is because we do not treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves, it is because we do not provide them equal dignity in society. And those forces are driven by our inability and unwillingness to even provide queer folk equal protection under the law.

Twenty to thirty percent of teen suicides are a direct reflection of our unwillingness as a society to see queer people as fully human.

It ain't just teen suicide, either. Those of you who do not support treating me and other queer people like me as fully human (and I know there are some of you on my friends list), I'll grant you one of your famous talking points, I'll agree that many deaths due to AIDS are in large part driven by irresponsible sexual behavior. But, I'll ask you to observe, even if you don't admit in your out loud voice, that you are silent conspirators to that action. When you work to force queer couples away from societal institutions such as marriage, you work against the very goals of commitment and responsiblity that you constantly proclaim. When you treat queer people as "other", as "less than", you taking a hand in the AIDS crisis as well.

Understanding the magnitude of these forces can be difficult, it was really Claude Steele's research on stereotype threat that started giving me some hard numbers to my emotional sense that "the 'less obvious' forces of prejudice" are enormous.

So, people are dying, the causes are clear, the forces at work are clear, large and measurable.

And while we are slowly, slowly winning ground towards legal recognition of our inalienable rights to be treated as fully human by our government, while people are dying, well, it's all happening too slowly.

Tomorrow the California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in case that's putatively about marriage. But that case isn't just about marriage, it's about treating people as fully human, it is about treating people according to the Golden Rule, it is about ensuring equal protection under the law, it is about preserving the democratically-enacted Cosntitutional protections that ensure that very equal protection.

(Do not miss that marriage opponents are all too quick to speak of "voter rights" when they speak of upholding Proposition 8, but never speak of the "will of the people" that enacted our government in the first place.)

This court case represents for many of us, I think, a "last hope", or perhaps equivalently, a "last straw." While we wait, people die, and should the court deny our pleas for justice, there are no remaining places to turn.

No, if we are to take direct action to try and stop PEOPLE FROM DYING from queer prejudice, it must begin with the overturning of Proposition 8. If the Court fails us, well, there is nothing left. The Court failed to strike down Prop. 8 pre-election. The Governor failed to sign a marriage equality bill when he had a chance. The voters failed us. The AG's office failed to force the correction of material factual miststatemtnts in the official ballot arguments. The media didn't bother to fact-check the assertion that domestic partnerships are "equal" to marriage. There are thousands of stories about anti-marriage protests, but few about a woman raped in part for being queer, there are thousands of stories about folks losing their jobs for supporting Proposition 8 but none for the folks who lost their jobs for opposing Proposition 8. Two large religious organizations, "bastions of morality" in our society, conspired to deny us rights, and lied about their mechaniations. No matter the cause of this, and ignoring any questions of blame or fault, it is undeniable that in the near future, this is the last chance, this could be the last straw.

If we lose? Yes, we will eventually win the battle for equal treatment under the law, that will happen, perhaps in my lifetime. In the state, then in the country, then in the world. I can sympathize with those of you who are content to wait, but I can't agree with you or support your silence or inaction. I say to you instead, to the extent that while you wait for a country to honor your equal human dignity, while you wait people die.

To those of you who do not support marriage equality, with all honesty, many of us "less than equal" folks see you as a group metaphorically "holding the knife" that's killing these innocents. I don't doubt you see it differently, but I hope you'll stop, take a deep breath, and spend a little time trying to appreciate why this is for many of us a matter of life and death. I hope that you will consider these words, and take seriously the harm that's being done by a homophobic society.

I believe that it's urgent that folks understand this now, not because it will affect the Court, but because I want folks to understand the consequences of any failure to overturn marriage inequality in the clearest possible terms:

Should the government and people of California fail to recognize basic human equality and dignity, and continue to therefore support the death of innocent queers, no one should be surprised should the thoughts of the queer community turn to self-defense and the defense of innocents, it is, to force an analogy, a matter of "the ballot or the bullet", and the ballot has already failed us.

That this might get more violent saddens and disturbs me no end.

2 comments:

Erik said...

To be honest, I think it's a hyperbole to state that opposition to homosexual marriage leads to suicide.

It's a change in a tradition that has been between a man and a woman for who knows how many years. Even in the classic period, when there were a lot of homosexual relationships, homosexual marriages never took place. I'm not surprised that people want to preserve this old tradition.

Homosexuals are allowed to be a couple and to live together (also for the law). So they aren't restricted in their everyday life by the law, are they? And they can live together just like any other couple.

So I think it's unfair to state that somehow the law is responsible for those suicides.

Of course, it's a shame that there is such hostility towards homosexuality which doesn't make life easy for those people, and I wish people would accept them the way they are. It would be discrimination otherwise (which is punishable by the law, isn't it?).

(Little disclaimer: Of course I don't know everyone about the American law and such)

Eleri Hamilton said...

it's not a 1 to 1 correlation, and not the argument of this essay that No marriage=suicide. It is more accurately read as "open hostility, violence and state-sanctioned discrimination = death" If I walk down the street holding my husband's hand, no one bats an eye. If I do so holding my girlfriend's hand, I risk open verbal abuse, and in many areas, actual physical violence.

Bottom line is, the state of accepted treatment of homosexuals in this country has lead many to take their own life.

Homosexuals are allowed to be a couple and to live together (also for the law). So they aren't restricted in their everyday life by the law, are they? And they can live together just like any other couple.

In the US, this is not true. Homosexuals in many places are not allowed to live together and have the same protections, rights and responsability of laws that heterosexual couples enjoy. That's part of the problem.

For example, a homosexual couple has been together for 20 years; one of them goes into the hospital with a life threatening illness. Unless they have gone through a convoluted and difficult process of granting Power of Attorney, the healthy partner would not have the right to make health care decisions. And, if fact, the ill partners family could come out of the woodwork and bar the partner of 20 years from the hospital. Conversely, a heterosexual couple who's been together for 6 months signs 2 pieces of paper, and they can make health care conditions for each other without question. This is not equal treatment under the law.

So I think it's unfair to state that somehow the law is responsible for those suicides.

If the laws granted equal rights and equal protections to homosexuals I would agree. But they don't. There are only some areas where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and most of those hinge on jobs and housing. There is still copious examples of state-supported discrimination in the US. Except in limited areas, homosexuals can't file federal taxes together, they can't get health insurance together, they can't own property together...all of which are things guaranteed by law to heterosexual couples.

And, in some states, it's been made illegal to give those rights to homosexual couples.