Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Oppression and the Monopoly Of It

Those opposed to gay rights sometimes insist that LGBT rights are not civil rights. Black conservatives, especially, rebuke any comparison to racism or to the black civil rights movement of the 1960s. Shelby Steele, writing for the Wall Street Journal, for instance writes:

"It is always both a little flattering and more than a little annoying to blacks when other groups glibly invoke the civil rights movement and all its iconic imagery to justify their agendas for social change....But gay marriage is simply not a civil rights issue. It is not a struggle for freedom. It is a struggle of already free people for complete social acceptance and the sense of normalcy that follows thereof--a struggle for the eradication of the homosexual stigma."

He goes on to argue that since marriage is a heterosexual institution revolving around procreation, gays should stop using civil rights lingo already and just settle for civil unions.

As a response, it is always a little annoying to me when people, perhaps believing that an identity group they are part of is the only one experiencing Authentic Oppression, completely discount the oppression that other groups of people are experiencing. I think there is a fine line between noting similarities between different forms of oppression versus opportunistically using, and therefore cheapening, what another group has experienced. I will be the first to admit that LGBT people are sometimes a bit too careless and clumsy with their comparisons to the black Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Honestly, I don't think it's particularly apt when a rich white gay man compares himself to Rosa Parks.

Yet, I think that comparisons should be acknowledged when they are valid and should not be rejected for political reasons, prejudice, or out of a fear that equality is a zero-sum game where if one minority group improves its lot then others will somehow suffer. I want to share with you a great statement from Audre Lourde's essay "There is No Heirarchy of Oppression":

"I have learned that sexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one sex over all the others and therefore its right to dominance) and heterosexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving over all others and therefore its right to dominance) both arise from the same source as racism- a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby its right to dominance."

I have written before about the gay rights and black civil rights analogy. To re-iterate, any analogy by its very definition is imperfect. If two things were exactly the same, there would be no need for such a comparison. Yet, I think Audre Lorde finds that key kernel of similarity among racism, sexism, and sexual prejudice. At their core, these ideologies and and the laws that perpetuate them, are about a false belief in the inherent superiority of something or someone over all others and, within this belief, is the justification for dominance.

As an illustration in this, and to use another comparison that those opposed to LGBT equality love to hate, we can look at laws banning inter-racial couples from marrying and laws banning same-sex couples from legal marriage. Because some people viewed whiteness as inherently superior to (what they deemed) non-whiteness, they believed that the marriage of a white person to a non-white person would degrade marriage. Thus, while almost all laws banning inter-racial marriage prohibited white people from marrying non-whites, members of non-white groups were free to marry amongst themselves (See this article for a brief history of such laws). One of the ideas of these laws was that the purity, and the superiority, of whiteness had to be protected.

The idea that allowing so-called inferior persons to marry white persons would somehow taint what marriage was is summed up by one early US legislator who said that allowing inter-racial marriage "necessarily involves the degradation' of
conventional marriage, an institution that 'deserves admiration rather than

Today, many "marriage defenders" believe in the inherent superiority of heterosexuality and the male-female relationship. Today, many of these people argue that "homosexual marriage degrades a time-honored institution;" it is a mere "counterfeit" that "cheapens" what marriage really is. They let their belief in the inherent superiority of heterosexuality inform their "right" to dominate our culture and define what marriage is and who gets to partake in it. So, while there are certainly differences between same-sex marriage and inter-racial marriage, there is a key similarity: An ideology of inherent superiority used to justify and perpetuate cultural dominance.

Opposition to that sort of ideology, I think, is something that many minority groups can rally around. Despite our differences, we all share the right to counter those who insist on our inferiority. As Audre Lourde continues:

"[I]t is standard of right-wing cynicism to encourage members of oppressed groups to act against each other.... I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you."

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