Thursday, August 29, 2013

Freedoms



Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech
Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Religion




















I went to see Oprah’s new movie The Butler this weekend. I liked it fine, though I wasn’t blown away or haunted in the way that I got after seeing something like Schindler’s List, 12 Angry Men, or To Kill a Mockingbird.

What I did get, though, was a reminder and a greater appreciation for what happened during a particular time in our nation’s history and some understanding into how that history shapes, for better or worse, our country, our people, our relationships today.

I’m gay, and I have to admit that at one point during the movie, I leaned over to my partner and said, “watching this, there’s really no way to compare what Blacks went through during the civil rights movement to what we are going through today.”

But I wonder…how much of my relatively peaceful existence today is a consequence of the ground work laid by people like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Freedom Riders, and all those who marched from Selma to Montgomery?

I say every last bit of it.

To my knowledge, I’ve never been overtly discriminated against. Never lost a job because I’m gay*, never been beat up for being queer, never been kicked out of my home by an unwelcoming family (not talking for about six months is not the same), never had to sit at the back of the bus, never had to drink from a separate fountain, never had to attend a different school, never been denied entry at a table, dining or otherwise.

But, you know, I’m not a gay historian and I wasn’t at the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, and I’m obviously not Harvey Milk or Matthew Shepard, or Chelsea Manning, or a man (or woman or child) who suffered from AIDS and lived through that crisis in the 80s. I’m just me, trying to make my way through life with my partner and our daughter. And in my mind, the reason I haven’t experienced overt discrimination for being gay is because of all the groundwork that was laid during the civil rights movement.

We have – I have – been educated a lifetime now about discrimination and equality. We know – I know – that it’s wrong to treat someone differently on the basis of their skin color or gender. We know – I know – that it’s wrong to treat someone differently on the basis of how they choose to worship. These things are protected by laws.

Are these “special” rights? Meaning, if we all now know after a lifetime of learning that discrimination is wrong and we shouldn’t do it, do we really even need such laws on the books anymore? By incorporating them into law, haven’t we made them “special” and aren’t we therefore discriminating against those who aren’t in the protected classes? And what about new rights and new protected classes? Do we really have to add more? I mean, can’t we now after long last all trust each other to do the right thing by each other?

I practice labor and employment law. Mainly advice and counsel to companies dealing with employment issues. This means I get calls and deal with issues related to discrimination. I’d say the majority of the issues I deal with involve racial discrimination and retaliation, but sexual harassment, age, and disability discrimination are also right up there.

Along with so many other things, what this tells me is that despite Title VII and all the laws already on the books, discrimination (which Google defines as ‘the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex) is not going anywhere. Idiots are gonna idiot.

For the most part, thanks to the great civility of most people around me, I never really have to question these things on a personal level. I don’t know why I’m gay. I mean, if you’re straight, ask yourself why you’re straight. Is there really an answer? You just are. So, for me, being gay is more akin to a race issue (something innate) than a religion issue (a personal choice not discernible unless disclosed).

I ponder all this lately because I just saw The Butler and because San Antonio – my city of more than 1.36 million people, the second largest city in Texas, the seventh largest city in America, the city designated by the Advocate as having the “highest percentage of gay and lesbian parents in the U.S.,” – is currently up in arms over whether or not to include sexual orientation into its current Non-Discrimination Ordinance.

Currently, 21 states and 180 other cities, including Houston, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Waco (I KNOW! I was shocked, too!), and Brownsville, have enacted protections for gay residents in city code and state laws.

Essentially, this ordinance will expand the City’s current non-discrimination policy (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age or disability) to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and veteran status and it will apply to city employment, city contracts and subcontracts.

It does NOT require the city to start marrying gay people, or any private business to provide domestic partner benefits to their employees, or any private business to produce or promote messages it does not agree with on religious grounds.

Part of the uproar stems from the fact that the city’s District 9 Councilwoman was secretly recorded expressing her not-so-empathetic personal views about homosexuality.

And then the media got involved to stir the pot and weigh debate about whether this ordinance would act as a “Thought Police” measure and criminalize the personal beliefs that individuals hold.

And then preachers (yes, even one who was arrested for dragging a teenage girl behind a van after she failed to keep up during a running exercise!) and archbishops got involved to argue that implementation of protections for LGBT people by the city would require people to have to choose between obeying the teachings of their faith and the law.

And that made me question what he means by that statement. Specifically, Archbishop Gustavo says: 

Beyond institutional challenges to the Church, we are concerned by intrusions on the right of conscience for individuals, especially in the area of public accommodation. It is not the province of civil government to interfere with the rights of conscience in the exercise of a person’s faith. It appears that this policy could force individuals who supply goods and services to the general public to provide them to individuals or organizations involved in activities that are in conflict with the providers’ moral values and right of conscience. People should not have to choose between obeying the teachings of their faith and the law.

What I think he’s getting at is this – what if the owner of a florist is patronized by me and my partner wanting to purchase floral arrangements for our wedding. As a Catholic, the owner believes it is against Church teaching for two people of the same sex to marry. Should the owner, as an exercise of her faith, be able to refuse to serve me and my partner? And if so, will the city’s new ordinance criminalize that exercise of faith?

Now, before I give my opinion, I can’t help thinking about the book of Matthew, particularly chapter 5. Most particularly verses 40-42.

How would providing service to me and my partner interfere with the shop owner’s exercise of faith? He or she might not agree with my right to get married (civil marriage, mind you. No one’s asking the Church to marry anyone), but as a Christian, isn’t she called to do it if I ask?

I realize my questions are simple, maybe even stupid; but, I can’t help myself from thinking that it’s this kind of teaching, this kind of institutional guidance that turns people away from organized religion, the Catholic church in particular.

I mean…I can’t be the only one to see the incongruity in organized religion’s lament over “gay rights” when compared to the actions of the preacher who helped lead the civil rights movement of yesterday (a preacher informed by a gay man, no less), right?

Now…do I think the florist should serve me? Yes.

Do I think the government should mandate that she serve me? No. Just like I don’t think the government should step in and make you like me (or me like you, for that matter).

That said, if the florist has a big contract with the City to provide arrangements at all City functions or her business gets anything funded by tax dollars, then no, she can’t refuse to serve me.

Can there really be any objection to that? I mean, does the Church teach (and do Christians actually believe) that love is self-donation, the generous pouring out of ourselves in order to achieve the greatest good for someone else, or does it not? 

So much to consider. So much I didn't cover, or covered poorly. At any rate...do you guys wish I'd just stick to poker? =)

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*Full disclosure, I spent most of my career in the closet and it wasn’t until my partner and I were going to have our daughter that I came out to my co-workers at the last firm at which I worked. Thinking back, I was in my mid-30s and had already been in the working world for nearly 15 years. Dang. That’s a long time to be in the closet. To be honest, I was very scared to disclose that information because even though it’s a global firm, our office was just one of the small satellite offices in Texas. While we didn’t have a domestic partner benefits plan, we did have an inclusive non-discrimination policy. I had five years with them by that time and figured if this was what got me kicked out, then so be it. That didn’t happen. That’s not to say everyone was all-welcoming. My relationships with some Partners did change, but no one (other than my supervising Partner, a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian) overtly said or did anything to impede my job or working environment. The only conversations I ever really had about being gay were with that supervising Partner. As a Christian, he had a hard time with it and we would talk about it. I remember him telling me one day, “you know deep down what you are doing is wrong.” Knowing he felt that way changed things for me and I eventually moved on, but while there he never impeded my job, treated me with hostility (other than the general law firm Partner bullshit), or impacted my work environment because I’m gay. I was pleasantly surprised when he called me this year asking me to join him at his new firm (I said no). And, when news of the Windsor case came down, he texted me to say congratulations. Weird how things work out.

3 comments:

  1. Good post. In terms of civil rights it always feels like people who believe in freedom, egalitarianism and good will are fighting a losing battle, but when I take the long view I see that progress has been made. Some people's hearts seem less hard and brittle, but of course there are a lot of haters around who must be vigorously fought.

    As an aside, having done some employment discrimination from the Plaintiff's side I was always struck by how hard it was to win those cases and how truly awfully Corporations could act, generally.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, the long term view is what's important. And you're right! there are a lot of hoops to run through to get a case to trial these days. There's too much 'truly awful' to go around!

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  2. "Idiots are gonna idiot." Love that. So true. Even this post makes a positive difference--you know that, right?

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