Sometimes racism is so big you don't notice it. I grew up in an all white town. I didn't think about it much. It was just the way it was. It didn't mean anything. After all, we sang, "Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight," every Sunday. And that's what I knew about diversity. But what I didn't know then was that it was an intentional racist act that ensured that my hometown was all white. By law, black people had to be out of town by sundown. Until 1968. And that is the way it was.
Today I live in Kansas City. A small city in the KC Metro area, Roeland Park, Kansas, is currently struggling with the question of whether or not to establish equal protections in housing and employment for people who are LGBT. (Kudos to them for recognizing the importance of taking this on.) A few days before the most recent vote was to take place, my friend who lives there found a flier on her door urging her to speak up against this measure.
That flier was slippery. Even as one of the people who could be discriminated against legally in Roeland Park, I had a hard time pinning down what was so offensive about that letter. After all, it does state that "We agree with the council that absolutely no one in our city should be discriminated against." And it ends with a plea to "Please speak out against discrimination and let your council know this can be achieved by other means..." (which are not named and do not appear to be the particular concern). Sandwiched in between those two comments is "the particular concern:" that "the ordinance allows anyone to claim gender identity or gender expression at any moment in time and use the bathroom of their gender identity. This gives a biological male who identifies as female access to women's bathrooms, showers and changing facilities."
The response my friend got from the councilwoman to whom she wrote expressing her concern about the letter and urging that her councilwoman vote for these protections was that there have been no reported cases of discrimination in their city, that the LGBT members of the community are welcomed and valued and always have been, and that singling people out for protections is actually a disservice to them because it implies that they are different. She also indicated that it is the attempt to pass this legislation that has created a problem that didn't exist before. I believe that the response was well intended and that the request for information that might help the councilwoman see things differently was sincere.
However, there are reasons that these laws are being promoted across our country. Even if there are no reported cases of discrimination on record in any particular place. Things have changed for gay people since I came out in the early 1980s. But I still see how I censor my own thinking, my actions, how I have struggled to really get that there isn't something wrong with me, how I have made myself smaller than I really am. In order to feel safe. Even though there have been no reportable cases of discrimination against me. Okay, well there were a couple, but who was I going to report them to? Okay, well the police that one time. But they disagreed with my assessment that it was a hate crime violation, and I ended up feeling like my concern was frivolous. And I'm pretty sure it never ended up "being reported."
The truth is that even God was used as a weapon to make sure I got that I was an abomination because I am gay. And that's a pretty powerful finger to have pointed at you. Especially if you are a devout young thing growing up in the Bible Belt. The fact that none of it was ever said out loud made it all the more powerful. It was that kind of shameful.
Truth is you can't go from legal discrimination and all the effects that has on the ones those laws are aimed at to "can't we just accept that we are all equal" (despite the laws that indicate otherwise). The fact that discrimination is legal, that you can be fired from the job you do beautifully just because you are gay or lesbian or trans or bi, is a real powerful statement. Even if you never are, just that the law supports your being fired hammers the message home that you are different, that you are less than, that you are not entirely safe, except for the good will of the people toward you. There is a whole layer of healing that needs to take place before "we are all equal" feels like home to those of us who have been told that we aren't.
Sometimes discrimination is so big in our country that good people speak out against measures to respond to it, saying that they are unnecessary and that it is only in the attempt to create laws that issues have arisen. And in a way they are right – it is the attempt to rectify a problem that has brought the issues to the surface. For those who were not impacted by them. But that's not where the issue started. If groups of people have been singled out as deserving discrimination because of who they are, then those groups of people need to be singled out with legal protections to ensure that the message comes through loud and clear. "You are welcome here and we will not tolerate anything that even suggests otherwise. And we will not hold that the story we have lived is the same as the one that you have lived."
Laws are essential. But they don't touch the heart. For that we need stories. Until our world really is big enough to hold us all joyfully, we need to hear the stories of those who have not been welcomed here.
This spring the Kansas City Public Library teamed up with StoryCenter to capture twelve stories of people's experiences around civil and human rights and/or dignities to ensure that they are not lost to silence. One of the things that struck me most listening to these stories was that there were a lot of things that I did not see when I was growing up. Another was that even though things have changed because of the work of civil rights activists over the last fifty years and more, there are way too many instances of discrimination and hatred happening even today.
We need these stories. Stories break silences that keep people trapped in feeling isolated – or conversely in feeling that there are no issues anymore. They are the antidote to hatred and lack of understanding and to the terrible impact that hatred and lack of understanding have on people. It is stories that will ensure that discrimination based on any type of prejudice will not become so big that we can't see it anymore. It is stories that will dissolve prejudice itself. Here are a few stories from the All Together Now workshop in Kansas City.