Equal Rights: A struggle to be seen not as Equal, but as Us
What are we first? Are we black? Am I black? Then a woman? Then gay? How do we define ourselves? Is it by the struggles we face? Whichever is most prominent? Whichever has been in place the longest? I define myself as a Black- Female- Lesbian, because I feel like that defines the order of my struggle.
For blacks, it took over 500 years to gain any measure of equality-- and we’re still fighting. Only the fight is harder now, because the fight is symbolic, it’s symptomatic; the fight is against the mind and the hearts rather than actual solid structures or rules set in place to confine and restrict us. I define myself as a woman second to that only because the Woman’s movement while at time’s paralleling the black movement, and perhaps being in spirit a movement that has been in place since the beginning of time, only gained momentum in the 17th century and is therefore a shorter movement of resistance. Women have always been beside Men, whether or not they were conscious of this fact. And still in this country the Women's Movement isn’t won. Women still get paid less, women are still seen as less. It’s just become harder to fight, because on the surface our first demands may have been met. Which brings me to the Gay Movement. Which is still in its infancy. And is met with resistance at every turn… and really looking back on the 500 years of struggle through being kidnapped, enslaved, segregated; looking back on the Women's Movement from 1698 onward, fighting for mainly women’s rights to property, their body, and finally the right to vote, that’s at least holding close to 400 years of documented fighting in its arms as well.
The Gay movement in America took its shape and form in 1924- the day many of the movements’ websites document as the official beginning- and that says a lot. Not even a century of active struggle is being documented here in the US… a movement in its infancy. We have a long way to go. The irony is not lost on me that these movements are larger than the timeline’s given them. Gay’s didn’t miraculously emerge in the 1920s. Women weren’t only repressed starting from 1600 and on. So what do dates matter? Am I defining my subcategories of how I fit into America based on how far we’ve gotten? How far we’ve come in the movement? I do not know. But I do know, that despite how far we have come as African American, Black, Negroes- the list of what is acceptable at what time in history goes on- we are still not equal. Despite the rights we have fought for, we still have so much further to go. As far as we have come as Women, Womyn, -however you choose to spell it- we still aren’t accepted as equal in mind, temperament, or status.
So knowing this my heart breaks after these elections when I read the comments of the people who are opposed to gay marriage and I know this one thing for sure. You cannot change the minds and hearts of the people who see you as less than equal. Change takes years. So even if we had won, looking at the comments that blaze up the blogs and articles on the issue, all I can see is how people are so divisively on one side or the other. Against each other. About my equality. As they have always been. So why are we so divided? Why are we so against each other? Why is Equality, something that purports to mean common ground, something that unavoidably causes such strong opposition, such a blatant parting of people?
It's at times like when I walk down the streets of New York holding the hand of my normal looking girlfriend, and she and I who look so young- so ordinary, we get unexpected smiles from older, middle class, moderate, Men, Women, Couples- Women with children. It's then that it dawns on me that they sometimes don’t realize we can be so normal. So like them. Just ordinary men women students who are just like them. And I think to myself, it’s not that equality is an impossibility, it’s that people have been lead to believe that we as “others” who are an “other” color, “other” gender “other” orientation, are somehow so unlike them as to be unrecognizable to them. Alienation has undone us. Our movement, so beautiful has often done us damage in its outlandishness. In our pride we’ve failed to come to a level of sameness that makes us so recognizable to those around us they can’t help but to see us as equal to them. They see us in this completely removed way, that enables them to deny us. As freaks, as outsiders, not as their children, their siblings, their friends. We are insulated, isolated, siloed . We are not of them, we have our own communities that don’t interact with them, so we have somehow forgotten that by not including them, we excuse them from seeing us for what we really are. A part of them.
These are the conclusions I always come back to. I see the anger on both sides, this refusal to find common ground, and know also that when I am tired and out of answers, history holds this heartbreaking answer to my most fervent and poignant questions for my equality in this country. With no mutual understanding and no common ground, even if we’d won in any legislative, or elective capacity, even if we’d edged out any electoral victories, what we would still lose inevitably, irrevocably, irrefutably is true equality. Because winning a vote for keeping Gay Marriage disbanned doesn’t change the minds of those who voted against it. It doesn’t make them recognize us- Blacks, Women, LGBT, Disabled, the list of minority groups goes on- as equal. We have to start changing minds and finding common ground there first. Or we will have “empty victories” that leave us with no leg to stand on. Derrick Bell in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, once stated, “For too long, we have worked for substantive reform, then settled for weakly worded and poorly enforced legislation, indeterminate judicial decisions, token government positions…If we are to seek new goals for our struggles, we must first reassess the worth of the racial assumptions on which, without careful thought, we have presumed too much and relied on too long”(Bell, 13-14). Bell’s revisiting of things that we gained and therefore lost in the Civil Rights movement carries particular poignancy for me this morning as I remember not to be too easily moved by empty shows or symbols of equality… or too easily dismayed by an electoral indication that proves what I have already realized. We still have so far to go.
History has shown again and again, that to be truly equal, we must be seen as equal. This isn't found in laws and legislature, but in the eyes of those who live next to you, walk beside you in the subway, on the streets, and stand next to you in line at the grocery store. Equality is having those all around you look at you and see You.