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Monday, January 20, 2014

This is how a road gets made.

Hello, Darlings. Happy 2014. Sorry I’ve been a bit absent. Real life occasionally puts a bit of a twist in your tail, and this has been one of those times. The photo-a-day project didn’t survive the turnings, but I’ll leave up the ones I posted anyhow. Some of them are nice.

So, as sometimes happens, it took feeling really strongly about something to motivate your favorite Unicorn to pick up a pen. Get ready. This post isn’t about sparkles and rainbows and kittens and feeling good. Today’s post is about oppression, and even about death. And fear. About living with the fear of those things every day, and living past it. Today is about living. And the cost.

Today is the day the US sets aside to honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve read several essays this morning on the ‘true meaning’ of the day, particularly about how white people have no idea exactly what Dr. King did other than ‘march’ and deliver his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (the best-remembered portion of which was ad-libbed because the next scheduled speaker was running late).

Rather than join in the debate about whether or not white people have co-opted this holiday for their own, I found my thoughts running in a somewhat different direction. This is that direction: I want to thank the leaders of the black civil rights movement for being such a force for positive change and inspiration. And I want to give you a few take-aways from that incredibly powerful movement, which will hopefully make you think about what we must learn from it to use, today.

Something that pretty much no one can argue is that Dr. King did way more than march and give a speech. According to a particularly resonant article in the Daily Kos, "Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south." Let me quote a bigger chunk of the article – the part that really got me thinking:

“It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.  You really must disabuse yourself of this idea.  Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.  You all know about lynching.  But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment. This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running.  It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.”

Now, without (really, truly without) intending any disrespect towards or belittling of what the black people had to endure during this time – does that description of human rights abuse and unfounded violence remind anyone of anything at all? Anything that we see, oh, every single day, now, today?!

Of course it does.

Although we try to smile and celebrate the steps forward that the LGBT movement has made in world – especially in the US, but also in a handful of other open-minded countries – but if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of our brothers and sisters are living in a world not much better.

Oh, stop, Unicorn, I hear some of you cry. I think I can hear some of your eyes rolling from here. Things aren’t that bad. We get to use drinking fountains just like ‘real’ people nowadays! 

Yeah? Tell that to the same-sex couple in Russia (you know, where they're hosting the Olympics this winter?!?) that has to choose between literally giving up their children and leaving their homes – leaving their homeland. Oh, and those without children only have to worry about being attacked and beaten (with the apathy or the participation of local law enforcement).

Tell that to the people in that country – and others- who live in fear every day of being not just mocked, but attacked, beaten, tortured or murdered for the crime of being suspected of being gay, bisexual or transgender.

Tell that to our brothers and sisters in Africa (among other countries) who are subjected to serial rapes, often by their own family members, and often until they are dead, as punishment or attempted ‘cure’ for the disease of being gay.

Tell that to our kin in Uganda, whose President only this week turned down a bill that would have made it law that all gay persons were to be imprisoned for life for no wrong-doing at all (other than suspected gayness) – except for those they could legally put to death if they suspected them of having corrupted anyone else. Fortunately, the President chose not to sign that into law – but only because he believed there were ‘other ways to rescue them from the crime of being gay’.

Tell that to the young people in this country who are forced to undergo religiously-sanctioned torture as a cure for who they are.

Or the ones who are attacked and beaten on the streets, in bars, in parks, in bathrooms, on subways, or in their own homes, just for being gay. Or being thought gay. Or for being transgender. Or for being ‘a weirdo’. Or for being in the wrong place when someone ‘went berserk’, and ‘randomly beat [LGBT] people, and the [LGBT] people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment’ (brackets/substitution mine). 

Yeah, it’s a lot like that, and you don’t even have to squint very hard to see the similarities.

Before anyone gets their panties into a bunch over this, I’m in no way trying to minimize the black civil rights struggle by equating it with today’s LGBT experience. Exactly the opposite, in fact. The black civil rights movement was carried out by some of the bravest people the US (and the world, in my opinion) has ever known. There were people who marched. There were people who gave speeches. And there were people who looked the violence and fear right in the eye and said, “Do your worst, you can’t break me.” That is what really gets to me, and that’s what prompted this post in the first place.

I’m going to quote another gigantic chunk of that Daily Kos article now. Not because I’m too lazy to summarize, but because I think it’s important you read the words I read. This bit deals with the people (Dr. King included, but in no way alone) who lead the breakthrough movement that paved the way to ending that culture of constant fear and oppression.

“So what did they do?
They told us: -- whatever you are most afraid of doing vis a vis white people, go do it.  Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down. Go ahead sit at that lunch counter.  Sue the local school board.  All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed. If we do it all together, we'll be OK. They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad.  They taught black people how to take a beating -- from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses.  They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating.  They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people. 

And you know what?  The worst of the worst, wasn't that bad.

Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicked[sic] on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?

These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south.  Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song.  The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another.  This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.

Please let this sink in.  It wasn't marches or speeches.  It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.”

The black civil rights movement isn’t the only movement in which people martyred themselves or put themselves in harms way to help pave a brighter future for those who came after. You can hear echoes here of the Woman Suffrage movement, when women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton were imprisoned, beaten and force-fed to try to frighten their sisters and supporters into abandoning ‘the cause’. They didn’t, and eventually, they won out. They faced the worst, regardless of personal cost.

If we do it all together, we'll be OK.

Some of them weren’t OK, and that’s a big part of this picture too. It’s one that we don’t like to look at or think about, but it’s huge. Some of them weren’t OK. But they did it anyway. It became something bigger than them, until what happened to them personally was no longer important. Can you imagine something so important to you that your own life becomes secondary?

You probably can’t. I’m not entirely sure that I can, for all I feel like my entire insides are tied into knots over the continuing anti-LGBT violence in the US and other countries. Most of us can’t, and those who say they can probably do so more easily because they know they will probably never be personally called to demonstrate that. I certainly hope I never have to.

But I also hope that if that day comes, I’m brave enough to do what Dr. King, James Farmer (founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and leader of non-violent resistance), and so many others who risked their freedom and often gave their lives, did: show others, including those who seek to oppress us just for being different than what they are or believe we should be, that we can move beyond our fear. That we can take the beating, face the terror and all that comes with it, knowing that someday our brothers and sisters can walk freely and in peace. And sing.

If we do it all together, we'll be OK.

More states now allow marriage equality than at any time in our history. Our PRIDE parades grow every year, and more and more people in the US believe that gays have a right to live peacefully and without discrimination. But we still have a long way to go. Please do not fall into the trap of thinking that this means we are safe. The news every day brings another story of someone beaten or killed – sometimes by strangers, sometimes their own families or loved ones. The violence is very much alive. And while we ride on a rainbow wave of good-feeling watching state after state repeal marriage bans, it’s easy to get lazy and tell ourselves that it will all fall into place without us making any personal sacrifices. To ignore what is happening in Uganda and Africa and Russia and too many places to count – as well as on our own front porch.

The fight for LGBT civil rights and true equality – the kind of equality where we are not afforded ‘special rights’, but enjoy regular old ‘human rights’ because our being LGBT is completely inconsequential – is far, far from over.

Who will our heroes and martyrs be, and where the sites of our landmark battles? Stonewall. The UpStairs Lounge massacre. Harvey Milk. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. DOMA. Where do we go from here?

We’ve taken a few very positive steps, but it’s a long, long road a-winding, Darlings, and no one can walk it for us. We have to strap on those shoes ourselves.

Is it ‘stark, raving insane’ to say, “This is not enough. We deserve to live with dignity and freedom,” even in the face of those who would knock us down, beat us, torture us, kill us?

Of course it is.

But maybe the time has come to do it anyway. Maybe some things are larger than one little Unicorn, or one you, or one hundred of us, or a thousand. Maybe some things just have to be, because living in denial and oppression and fear isn’t getting us where we need to go.

If we do it all together, some of us will be OK. We can no longer wait for someone to do it for us.

Shall we sing?


I welcome your comments and thoughts, as always. If you agree, sing out! If you disagree, tell me why. Join in the babble! All opinions welcome, but please be respectful of others.

~ The Babbling Unicorn

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