Friday, July 31, 2015

How many similarities do you need to link one rights movement with another?


How many similarities do you need to link one rights movement with another?

Freedom for U.S. slaves was a lengthy process and even after they were emancipated, civil rights were not codified in law until a century later. A key word here is law because attitudes are slow to change even when laws set limits on behavior. The battle against racism continues.

Leaders supporting and opposing same-sex marriage and other rights and protections for sexual minorities have referred to the civil rights movement. Some assert similarities. Others point to differences. The statements are often intensified by emotional rhetoric shrunken to bite-sized statements suitable for T-shirts and video clips.

The civil rights arguments are not just academic because the reasons come with powerful emotions attached. One can easily imagine students being asked to write an essay about the subject. And I can imagine some professors having a difficult time grading such work if they have a strong personal opinion.

From a psychological perspective, there are some potent differences and similarities that I do not find in the political debate. I’ll point out one group of issues dealing with identity.


Both groups have been subject to degraded social identities in many world cultures. Whatever dignity each person—African slave or LGBT—may have constructed, it is clear that many if not most members of the majority did not accord them an identity worthy of a human being. Justice Thomas notably commented that government cannot take away dignity and referred to U.S. slavery and internment camps. I'm not sure how Justice Thomas uses the word dignity but it seems to me that at least the government refused to acknowledge the dignity of African slaves and LGBT persons.

Rights for African-Americans 

For U.S. slaves and their descendants, the history of dehumanization is so clear that it is almost impossible to believe some people considered other persons as simply property that can be bought and sold. The social identity accorded slaves was less than human. Markers of social identity were destroyed: names, religious heritage, African heritage, and marriage and family relationships.

Religious factors were mixed through the centuries. For many, religion is a part of one’s identity. The religious beliefs and practices of Africans were not acceptable.  And the religious beliefs of many in the U.S. were interpreted to permit slavery—with the only advice to treat slaves kindly. Following emancipation, segregation within U.S. churches remains the rule. Recently, some churches have apologized.

For African-Americans, the path to equality has been long and filled with obstructions. Prejudice remains. Conflicts with police, gun violence, churches on fire, and hate speech continue.

           How does anyone maintain a semblance of dignity and worth against such odds?

Rights for LGBT persons

Dehumanization for LGBT persons has been different unless they look like the European majority and remain closeted about their sexuality.

So if they look like a European and hide their sexuality, LGBT persons can enjoy the same social identity roles as many of their heterosexual peers through the ages. But if they disclose their sexual orientation; they too are subject to dehumanization. Coming out of the closet exposes LGBT persons to degrading comments, discrimination, and even violence. If they are African-American and identify as LGBT then they take a double hit from the majority (example).

The sexual orientation closet is a metaphorical shackle with real constraints.
Out of the closet, LGBT persons have some human rights but until 2015 only some in the U.S. had the right to marry someone they loved. Some people want nothing to do with LGBT persons even if they do not openly abuse them. Sexuality and relationships are very important to identity.

Religion plays a different role in the lives of LGBT persons than in the lives of African-Americans. News sources document the official positions of religious groups as well as the unofficial opinions of outspoken leaders. Until recently, the majority opinion has been that same-sex activity is sinful. Those who engage in other than heterosexual practices are perverts. And Christians ought to separate themselves from people who practice immorality.

Although some churches are beginning to welcome LGBT persons, many Christian churches, schools, and businesses will not welcome LGBT persons as members of a couple or family. The emerging rule for conservative Christians is, you can be out of the closet about the sexual aspect of your identity but you must be celibate unless you are in a heterosexual marriage. I doubt Christians have given much thought to how this works out for those identifying as bisexual or transgender.

How does anyone maintain a semblance of dignity and worth against such odds?

Both groups have been subject to dehumanization and legal restrictions. Both groups have been subject to actual and threatened violence.

What About People Who...

There are people who have additional struggles to access the benefits in society accorded the majority. Add to the prejudice against African-Americans and LGBT persons, the persistent struggles of women and people with disabilities. And add in those who do not identify as a Christian—or worse, those who identify as an atheist. Life options are pretty limited regardless of what the law says.

Hiding some aspect of one’s identity may be the only safe way to travel through life in many world cultures.

It seems to me arguments about similarities or differences between the pain and suffering experienced by one disenfranchised group and another is a distraction from efforts to ensure that all people have equal access to the protections and benefits afforded other members of a nation.

Everyone moves forward when an injustice is uncovered and delegitimized, and the associated destructive attitudes are held up for scrutiny.

But there are exceptions that justify a special national focus. The Black Lives Matter movement is a matter of life and death at this point in U.S. history.

Discrimination against LGBT persons must end and it deserves its own focus.

Links to related news stories, blogs, and SCOTUS


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