Replacing “The Gays”

I read in a Quora forum a little while back the responses to the question, “What surprised you about America as a foreign-born person when you first came here?” The answers were mostly unsurprising:

Everything in the United States is much bigger and more spread out than they could have possibly imagined.

Everything is far apart — no, you can’t really drive from New York to Los Angeles and still get a good visit to both in the same week.

The people were friendlier and more helpful than they had expected.

The public transit was abysmal.

The educational system, much ballyhooed by many folks here, offered broader opportunities to enter the career of their choice than many found in their home countries.

The architecture was dull and repetitive.

The opportunities were impressive.

The wealth disparities were shocking.

Click for Creative Commons license.

This is why we’re less of a melting pot and more of a salad bowl. Leave the melting pots for fondue. Mmm, fondue… Photo by Barron Fujimoto via Flickr.

But something I hadn’t considered until I read the discussion was that people from abroad were surprised at how much the laws can change from one state to the next. I had made a false assumption that federalism elsewhere worked much  like it does here. It hadn’t occurred to me just how independent each state in the United States really is.

It’s not that I’m ignorant of the fact. Living near the Minnesota-Wisconsin state border, I know that people buy their alcohol in Minnesota and their cigarettes in Wisconsin because of disparities in excise taxes. Labor-friendly laws give Minnesota workers an edge, but in Wisconsin it’s simpler to open a new business. And, of course, if you and your partner are of the same sex, you can get married in Minnesota but not in Wisconsin.

It’s to this last point that the variations in law from one state to the next are showing most prominently in the headlines. In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex civil marriage, state laws opposing such contracts are falling under the scrutiny of the courts. And, state by state, more people are allowed to get married.

(Of course, if these newly wed couples change state boundaries, suddenly, they may not be considered married anymore.  No heterosexual couple in the United States must undergo such considerations when making a move. This is how truly disjointed the states are with respect to each other.)

This shift in the law, though, is being met with great resistance in other parts of the country — two states of which, I must note, are north of the Mason-Dixon line.  Of particular note this week are moves in three states — Idaho, Kansas, and Tennessee, to allow those who work in the public sector to deny services to LGBT services on the grounds of religious freedom.

However, this move is fraught with error on so many levels. Oh, where to begin…

First off, it declares discrimination as a religious freedom. Mind you, this is not the first time in American history we have heard this:

“I believe those blacks are the descendants of Ham and are therefore cursed by God; therefore, I stand by my religious freedom to refuse them service.”

“I believe those Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus; therefore, I stand by my religious freedom to refuse them service.”

On and on.

Such statements would not stand in a court of law today. (At least, I hope they wouldn’t. Heaven knows I have reason to avoid complete optimism in this regard.) Why aren’t we holding the same standard here?

Another thing: when a person chooses to enter a profession in which they will be serving the public, they don’t get to pick and choose who is the public. Once you cross the threshold of my business, it is my legal duty to render services to you. This is part of the social contract of entering such a profession —  public means the whole public.

To those who would say otherwise, I would simply ask they move on to another profession. If you do not have the capacity to turn off your prejudices between clock-in and clock-out so that you can perform the baseline duties of your profession… well, in my experience and observation, if you can’t perform the baseline duties, you get fired.

This goes to the police officer who refuses to intercede in a domestic dispute because the parties are of the same sex.

To the emergency-room technician who won’t touch a patient because they are transgender.

To the mortician who won’t care for the deceased because their spouse is of the same sex.

There are plenty of other jobs where it’s permissible to pick and choose who you serve, and you’re more than welcome to take one of those.

Then there is the issue of freedom. I’m all for freedom. I’m all for religious freedom — and I am an atheist. But a freedom is only a freedom insofar as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of another. When we start to presume otherwise, when we say that some have freedom but others do not, it is no longer freedom, but tyranny.

But there is something else buried in this issue. It’s this notion of painting everyone in a swath.  If we make a law against “the gays”, what is that? It’s an abstraction. There is no face to it. It’s easy to legislate against an abstraction.

I say all this with the caveat that we can’t err the opposite direction, either. It was only through people openly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender that legal progress was ever made in the first place. So there are good reasons for individuals identifying as such.

But that is not what I mean. I’m talking about creating this faceless group within your imagination so that you don’t have to deal with the individuals therein. (This of course applies to pretty much any group to which you don’t belong.)

But I have a face.

And I have a name.

And so, if you ever say to yourself or to someone else, “I don’t think the gays should marry,” drop that “the gays” and replace it with “Whittier”.

“I don’t think Whittier should marry.”

“I don’t think Whittier should eat at the restaurant of his choice.”

“I don’t think Whittier should receive equal service from emergency services.”

Don’t know me? Change the name to John.

Or Michelle.

Or Ethan.

Or Tamika.

Or anyone else you know.

And if you don’t think you know anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the statistics bear out otherwise. Perhaps they haven’t told you because you have said that “the gays” shouldn’t marry.

Fill it in with the name of anyone you know.

Because, here’s the thing: no matter whose name you put in, regardless of sex

or gender

or religion

or political affiliation


it should be clear that the statement falls. That it should fall.

This is what equality is about.

This is what freedom is about.


About Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with a focus in nonfiction. He graduated from Metropolitan State University with a BA in creative writing. He has special interests in sociology and philosophy.

Posted on 14 February, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I just did read the news elsewhere. Very good stuff.

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