Friday, June 6, 2014

Be thankful, be proud

Posted By on Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 5:00 PM

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As the Circle City IN Pride festival approaches we have more to celebrate in 2014 than ever before. An astonishing swell of support for the gay community has swept the nation. Marriage equality is now available to citizens in 19 states and the District of Columbia, affecting nearly 44 percent of the American population. From the early days of the gay rights movement we have been fighting for our right to live openly. But now, in 2014, the fight continues, though the focus has shifted. We have set our sights on our right to thrive, to pursue life, liberty and happiness. We've come a long way, but aren't across the finish line yet.

Before the birth of the American gay rights movement, homosexuality was rarely addressed. When it was, gays were portrayed as evil, filthy, subhuman creatures unwilling or unable to stifle their "unnatural desires." In 1948, groundbreaking research from Indiana University's Kinsey Institute shed more light on American sexuality, and homosexuality, than any study before it. Kinsey extrapolated that nearly 10 percent of the general population was gay. The findings were denounced by academics and politicians alike, and were said to represent a weakening of the American spirit. Being gay was classified a creeping threat, a threat akin to communism.

It's human nature to whitewash history, to look back fondly on the "good old days." It's easy to forget that once women were forbidden to vote or work outside the home. It's convenient not to mention the fact there was a time African Americans couldn't even drink from the same water fountain as whites. Often we overlook the fact that life as a gay person "back then" was often dangerous and those brave enough to openly portray their sexuality were mocked, despised, and even assaulted.

Our representation in popular culture throughout the 1940s and 50s was limited to subtext in movies, with gays representing characters to laugh at, to pity or to fear: the sissy, the self-hating closet case, the predator. Not only did this imagery have a negative impact, it warped the lens through which all of society viewed us. We weren't allowed to show our capacity for love and monogamy, so it was assumed that we just weren't capable of either. Despite the fact that young gays had no positive role models present in society, we gathered together, trying our best to love and support each other while our lives and loves were stifled by laws and threats of violence. We were forced to look out for our own.

The meek, non-confrontational and mostly non-existent gay rights movement exploded in the muggy, early morning hours of June 28, 1969 in response to NYPD raids at establishments known to cater to gays. Weeks of violent clashes between police and patrons at the historic Stonewall Inn and other bars and clubs throughout Greenwich Village saw gays transformed from victims into activists.

On the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, America saw its first gay pride parades — bold proclamations of our right to exist without persecution. This visibility and demand for justice started to affect public opinion. Homosexuality was once treated with confinement to mental facilities and electroshock therapy, but by 1974 the American Psychiatric Association had declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

We started to gather momentum. We saw openly gay public figures such as Harvey Milk elected to public office. Our quest for equality resulted in nearly 100,000 individuals marching on Washington in 1979 to demand equal civil rights and protective civil legislation. Our movement received national support for the first time in 1980 when gay rights were added to the platform of the Democratic party.

Then that momentum began to falter. The AIDS epidemic exploded and fear spread faster than compassion. In response to this "gay disease," incidents of anti-gay rhetoric and violence skyrocketed. Patients were often refused admittance to hospitals. Our own president even refused to take action for fear of the political fallout from within his own party. The religious right called AIDS a punishment for our sins, and blamed us for the disintegration of the American family. But we stood firm. We took to the streets, to the airwaves, and shouted for help. Through organizations like Act Up and with the help of brave doctors and victims, we funded research, developed treatments and fought again for our right to live.

Bill Clinton signed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law in 1994, which forced gay and lesbian service members to serve silently. We were further relegated to the margins with 1996's Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse recognition of our marriages. These rulings, while damaging, motivated us to work harder for our rights. We've since seen the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and marriage equality shows no sign of slowing down, our goal of nationwide recognition within our reach.

The gritty, street-level activism of the '80s and '90s has been largely replaced by legal arguments. Judges and city councils have recognized that this is a major civil rights issue of our time and have overturned bans on our relationships, bans on our right to work and live and love.

We've faced our share of challenges, but we have knocked down every obstacle placed in our way. From ugly stereotypes to uglier religious rhetoric; from unfair persecution to incurable disease; from ignorance to fear to hate, we have overcome, and will continue to overcome. Every milestone we've achieved in our pursuit of equality has been met by our detractors with disbelief, anger and resolve to make us fail.

As much as they might not want to hear it, and we may not want to admit it, our loudest detractors often become our biggest motivators. They tell us "You can't, you shouldn't, just don't." We respond with "We can, we will, just watch."

Laws against our relationships have been repealed, and we don't have to live in fear of arrest for a small display of affection. We now have representation within politics and pop culture. Our president has voiced his support for us and our rights. We can serve openly in the military and be joined in marriage and even raise families. The AIDS epidemic rages on, but we're able to teach prevention, continue research and achieve breakthroughs.

The road to true, complete equality stretches ever on. We still face the burden of being denied recognition of our marriages and access to all the benefits afforded to legally recognized couples. Once nationwide equality is achieved, I guarantee some will continue to face discrimination. We understand more than anyone that change doesn't happen overnight. Change is slow, change is hard, but change is inevitable. One thing can be said of even the most closed-minded among us; they can still learn.

We owe our thanks to everyone involved in our movement for getting us where we are today. Thanks to the heroes who inspire us, victims that spur us into action, individuals who prove the ugly stereotypes wrong, allies who never stop doing what's right on our behalf, and even the detractors who strengthen our resolve. Thanks to the Harvey Milks who proved we could both try and succeed. Thanks to the Ellens, Neil Patrick Harris', RuPauls and others who proved we could face the world publicly and not be met with pity and revulsion. Thanks to Governor Pence, Speaker Bosma and Representative Delph who proved that the most hateful legislation and the most circular logic would be drowned out by the love we bear for one another and the support we receive from all who share in that love. We won't be shamed into silence.

So celebrate, Hoosiers. Celebrate our differences and how far we've come. Celebrate our ability to be who we truly are, and love who we were born to love.

Be mindful of the past and hopeful for the future. Be thankful. Be thoughtful. Be respectful. Be humble.

Be proud. n


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Doug Whitinger

Doug Whitinger is a native Hoosier and an advocate for LGBT rights.

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