By Kelly Huegel, author of GLBTQ
As summer kicks off, so do Pride observations across the nation and around the world. From weeklong festivals in big cities like New York and London to modest, small-town observances, what was once a civil rights protest is now largely a celebration.
For me, this Pride month is different from others. As a resident of our nation’s capital, the Supreme Court building is a just a Metro ride away. The heartbeat of this city is power, and politics are the blood that courses through its veins. You cannot live here and be ignorant to the impact of what happens behind those walls. As we march into another humid D.C. summer, even the rising flood of tourists is not enough to distract from the momentous decisions that now rest at the feet of the highest court in the land.
This spring, on successive days, the court heard arguments in two cases that have the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of the same-sex marriage debate. I won’t go into the details of the cases, which center on California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but you can find more info in a collection of NPR’s reports.
In listening to the coverage of these cases, one thing bothered me time and time again. It was the media’s use of the term “gay marriage” instead of “same-sex marriage.” For lots of people, these are interchangeable. In fact, there is a critical difference between the two that speaks to a much larger issue. You can be in a same-sex marriage and not identify as gay. I believe that understanding that and related issues will lead to a greater impact on the GLBTQ civil rights movement that spreads far beyond the rights of same-sex couples.
Recently, a viral video came across my Facebook feed in which an interviewer asked passersby if they thought being gay is a choice. Many responded yes. The interviewer then asked, quite calmly, when they had chosen to be straight. To their credit, many of the respondents quickly made the leap to acknowledging that being gay wasn’t a choice.
For decades, one of the main tenets of the gay civil rights movement has been that it’s not a choice. At a time when we’re poised to see some of the greatest leaps forward in the history of GLBTQ civil rights, I propose we take it one step further. I suggest we ask ourselves why the question of whether it’s a choice even matters.
I believe that there are people in this world—lots, in fact—for whom the gender of their mate is not a choice. They feel that they could never be happy and fulfilled with someone of the same gender, or someone of the opposite gender. Some people are gay or straight, and not by choice. I also believe, though, that there’s a vast range of people who choose. Maybe they are far more likely to be attracted to people of the same or opposite gender. Maybe not. The Kinsey Scale is one reflection of this idea.
Many people label this in-between space “bisexuality.” There’s a lot of prejudice against the idea of being able to choose your partner regardless of gender, from both the straight and gay communities. Those in this space are often accused of being hypersexual, or afraid to come out as gay. I have gay friends who have said things like, “Bisexuality is a myth. You’re one or the other.” Typically, when I hear something like this I ask, simply, “Why does it matter to you if someone can choose?”
What makes this discussion so important is the larger issue to which the following question is endemic: Who cares? Who cares whether someone chooses to be with someone of the same or opposite gender, or whether they’re predetermined as gay or straight? How would it being a choice impact an individual’s worthiness to experience the same freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
For a long time, the argument that it’s not a choice has been a very powerful tool in persuading the powers that be that it’s cruel to discriminate against gay people. I’ve heard people who identify as gay say, “I’d never choose this.” I understand that what they’re often saying is that they’d never choose to be discriminated against. But what I also hear in that statement is that it’s hard to be gay. I don’t think it’s hard to be gay. It’s hard to be discriminated against, regardless of why. The fact of the matter is that we discriminate against one another for lots of reasons all the time. I’m even discriminated against for being blonde. In our arguments for gay rights, I believe we should start shifting the focus more to the issue of how we treat each other—to discrimination overall. To our credit, I think we’re now at a point where we can do better than “It’s not a choice.”
When I travel, one of my favorite places to go is Key West, Florida. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, there’s a philosophy among the residents of this southernmost U.S. city that they call One Human Family. On my first visit many years ago, I asked a resident where were the good places for gay people to go. She said, “Oh, we don’t really have those types of places,” which confused me because I’d always heard it was such an open and accepting town. She went on to add, “We don’t really see the need for that here—to separate ourselves. We just all hang out together.”
Key West’s One Human Family motto serves as their public declaration that they don’t tolerate discrimination against anyone for any reason, period. As the local put it, “If you’re here and you’re a jerk to people for any reason, you’re the one who doesn’t fit in.” That sounds like a pretty good philosophy to me.
I wrote in my book GLBTQ and have said many times in interviews that I believe that one of the best, most important things the next generation—those currently in their teens and early 20s—brings us is a “who cares” attitude toward GLBTQ issues. Don’t get me wrong: They are vocal and active in fighting for GLBTQ rights, but their perspective is largely “Who cares?” Who cares if someone identifies as gay or straight, or transgender, or doesn’t want to identify at all? Why does it matter? Who needs labels? What is their purpose? These are incredible and important questions to ask, and I believe that they are the key that unlocks the door to a One Human Family mentality for larger society.
Let’s stop putting our labels on other people and start paying more attention to our own behavior. Let’s treat each other better, not because we’re gay or straight—or this color or that color, or this religion or that religion—but because we’re all so much more alike than we are different. Does it really need to be more complicated than that?
With the recent media attention on GLBTQ rights issues, what questions have your students had? How have you handled these issues in your classroom?
Kelly Huegel is the director of public-private partnerships for a military medical foundation. Previously, she worked for the Metropolitan Washington DC chapter of PFLAG, where she helped provide support and educational services for GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than fifty published articles, Kelly has a special passion for working with teens and holds a degree in secondary education.
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