Now Is The Time To Stand Up
I can remember back in the 1960′s when our tiny school in rural Oklahoma had a special assembly. We were all gathered together in the small auditorium for a documentary about the Holocaust. Someone, somewhere, had decided that it was important to make sure that the next generation understood what had happened so that when we grew up, we could make sure such atrocities never happened again. In fact, at that time, “Never Again” was the slogan ringing in every corner of our great nation.
As an adult looking back, I am at times still in amazement that the film we were shown was deemed appropriate for such young children. The images I saw (real film of real victims) are forever burned in my mind. Even now, if I let my memory go back there, I am filled with horror over the visions of human bodies stacked like cordwood, higher than the tallest men and longer than the great buildings behind them. My gut still wrenches when I remember the naked, walking skeletons of the emaciated victims, moving like zombies through the broken barricades. I can still see the faces of our soldiers, tears streaming down as they were overwhelmed with the realities of the death camps they had just liberated. As these images were burned into my mind and soul forever, I vowed with every bit of my young being that when I grew up, I would never be the kind of person to stand by and let things like that happen to other people.
In that same small school I also learned about Oklahoma history. History that was varnished from the white man’s point of view, but with enough of the truth still visible to let our generation realize that our ancestors had not treated the Native Americans justly. An understatement I only fully understand later on in life. Still, I can remember thinking as a child, “I would not have treated the Indians that way if I had lived back then.”
In 1963, on our black and white television, I watched governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of a school in Alabama, vowing the “God fearing” people of Alabama, in an “exercise of freedom and liberty under the law”, would not allow the integration of blacks and whites in public schools. Even at the age of eight, without a black person within hundreds of miles of me, I knew he was wrong. During this time in history, our television was also full of footage clips recalling the events around the first children that had integrated the school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The images of the crowd of white adults shouting, jeering, screaming, and waving fists at those nine black children is also forever burned in my memory. It was the first time in my young life that I had ever seen adults with faces twisted in such anger and hate. It was the first time I witnessed mob mentality, violence, and utterly unbelievable blind following of twisted moral reasoning. Hate, supposedly “justified”, because it was in defense of “traditional ways”. I vowed to myself, a mere child of eight, that should I ever meet a black person, I would treat them kindly and be their friend. I also vowed to grow up to be the kind of person that would treat all children fairly and equally.
It wasn’t until my late teens that I learned how our government treated our Japanese citizens during WWII. By this age, I wasn’t as shocked, but I certainly understood the great injustice that we had inflicted upon so many of our own citizens. I couldn’t understand how something like that could have happened here in this country, but I told myself that we had learned from our past mistakes and something like that could “never happen again”.
Also from my childhood, I can remember my great aunt telling me a few stories about women’s suffrage and how women didn’t always have the right to vote. Her stories didn’t mean much to me at the time and to tell the truth, the reality of the struggles of women just a few generations ago didn’t really hit me until recent years. I think the eye opener came when I read somewhere that it had taken women seventy-seven years (from the first women’s rights convention in 1848) to gain the right to vote in all states by adding the 19th amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1920. I was dumbstruck. Seventy-seven years?! How is that possible?! Only now do I realize the sacrifices that countless other women before me made so that I might exercise my freedoms, my civil rights, at this moment in history.
Which brings me, I now realize, to this moment in history…the time in my life when I have to make that decision about which side of history I will fall on. The time in my life when I have to reconcile with the child of my past. The child that watched the Holocaust film and vowed “never again”; the child that read the history of our Native Americans and knew it was wrong; the child that promised to love and respect all people, regardless of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. The child that has grown into a woman with the right to vote for whomever I want because of the dedication of women generations before me.
That child, this woman—here and now—is taking her stand. I am standing up for the civil rights of all Americans, whether they be Jewish, or Black, or Native American, or Japanese…or gay, lesbian, or transgender. Now is my time in history to declare that any civil liberties or rights that I might enjoy are civil rights and liberties that should belong to every American; regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
There are those who will say I’m exaggerating the point, or indignantly assert that the circumstances are not the same. They will deny the situation with the same types of excuses made throughout history whenever any group of people were persecuted. They will rationalize, moralize, and justify their reasons. They will do this so they don’t have to take action or feel guilty. Some will even “prioritize” the electoral issues and, sadly, place civil rights at the bottom of the list. They will say things like, “I believe in equal rights, but….”
It’s time to face the facts. Right now, in present day America, there are hate groups that are devoted to targeting, defaming, denigrating and persecuting LGBT citizens. Right now, there are political groups and high level politicians that are pandering to those who advocate hostility, violence, and hatred towards LGBT citizens—often under the guise of religion or freedom of speech. Those who remember the vows of “Never Again” need to sit up and pay attention to what is happening, here and now.
Now is the time for you to look in your mirror and ask yourself what you would have done in those past moments of history? Would you have stood up for the Jews? The Native Americans? The Japanese Americans? The African-American children?
Make no mistake, this is the same kind of choice. Our neighbors, our relatives, our friends, our co-workers…our fellow LGBT citizens have waited long enough for us to stand up for them. When you go to the polls this election and exercise the civil rights that others in history fought for, remember that now is your turn to be on the right side of history.
Growing up in a very small town in rural Oklahoma, among Protestant churches and traditional, conservative politics, I learned early that questioning the status quo was frowned upon. When outside ideas trickled in via our television or the rare visitor from somewhere else, I was the kid on the corner hanging on to every word and dreaming of other places. But it wasn't until I left home, at age eighteen, that I really began to understand the social isolation of my home region. This realization didn't come through an instant epiphany, I was still the quintessential, just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck farm girl, who trusted everyone she met, and therefore paid some high prices for my naivety. Although it was a long journey, I eventually learned how to value my principles and, more importantly, how to stand up for myself and others when wrongs are being committed. (As difficult and frightening as that can be at times.) I've also learned there is a big difference between circumstantial ignorance and willful ignorance. The former is understandable and needs to be dealt with gently and compassionately. You cannot blame someone for not understanding something they have never been exposed to or experienced. The latter, willful ignorance, brought about when someone refuses to look at facts or listen to others' ideas, is quite another problem for all of society. However, no matter the cause of the ignorance, the key to understanding and acceptance is love, patience, and persistence. This is not to be confused with remaining silent or ignoring the problems--it means remaining steadfast and having the courage to speak up for what is right, fair, and just in this world. Most importantly, it means loving your neighbors--ALL your neighbors--on this very small planet we call home.