First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
2012 is a strange time in the fight to end inequality. On paper we are closer than ever before, and although this is true, our country is also becoming more and more polarized as a byproduct of this undeniable progress. While it is important to celebrate each victory large or small, there is obviously still a great struggle ahead. Our roles as straight allies of LGBTQ Americans are becoming not only clearer but increasingly vital as we go further down the road toward change. We have reached a moment in which wavering apathy is simply a non-option, as it is an endorsement in itself of the treatment of LGBTQ Americans as second-class citizens. As straight allies, we have to realize that the time is now to take a critical look at ourselves and to question how and where we are allowing hate to exist and, therefore, to breed.
A large part of being an ally is establishing ourselves within our social and professional circles as people who will not tolerate homophobia in any form or under any circumstance. This is also, in many ways, the hardest part. It goes without saying that bringing up weighty issues can be awkward in social situations -- even more so, standing up to a colleague or a friend.
My experience has led me to believe that people are excessively uncomfortable and often upset when homophobia is pointed out in social settings. I can't even begin to count the amount of times I have been called a "buzzkill" or, worse, pre-warned to keep my mouth shut before entering a dinner: "So-and-so's parents are super religious, so don't bring up the gay rights stuff." That felt seriously dark even to write, but nonetheless, these are actual words that have been said to me, and I believe they reveal a great deal -- namely that we as a culture place social comfort over right and wrong. We would rather let hate speak linger among us than endure that awkward moment when someone points out that something is simply not acceptable. It is that same part of the brain that can't locate the words to ask a cab driver flying down an avenue at the speed of light to just slow down. Social paralysis is strong and stands firmly in the way of change on the ground level. As allies, we have to prepare ourselves to step into the fire when necessary, even -- and especially -- when said fire is merely a still-lit cigarette tossed carelessly onto the street. Of course, the majority of us would speak up in the face of outrageous bigotry, but do we speak up in a social situation when someone casually refers to something as "gay"? If we don't, we are standing with the homophobes whom we are quietly fighting. Saying nothing is saying that you are someone who is OK with hate, while saying anything establishes you as an entity that will not accept it in any form. Awkward? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Homophobia is not only rampant; it is tolerated, and those of us who intend to speak up in its ugly presence are often looked upon like oppositional teenagers just trying to get a reaction. However frustrating it can be, these are the scenarios in which we have a real opportunity to make a difference.
Unlike racism, the verdict on homophobia's social acceptability is still out. Hate mongers will always exist; we can't change that. We do, however, have the power to back them into corners and illuminate their ignorance, making them as irrelevant as possible. As we have seen with racism, the more we as a culture choose to cease to tolerate it, the less visible it becomes, and therefore, its influence is monumentally decreased. As a result, life becomes better for those oppressed, laws change more rapidly, and equality is achieved sooner. You can bet that the more we make a scene in the presence of homophobia, however minor it may seem, the more progress we will make toward its greater silencing.
Personally, this is something I encounter constantly in the music industry. Being a heterosexual male in a band comes with a certain misogynistic stereotype that, in effect, leads people to assume that they can safely use offensive terminology that perhaps they wouldn't in front of, say, a teacher. This leads me to another vital role of any ally: recognizing the specific power we each have based on who we are and what we do.
There is no question that the issue of LGBTQ inequality has a stigma of being a "gay issue" and not the human rights issue that it is. With this comes an assumption that heterosexual America doesn't have to care, because, well, it's not their problem (or as stated above, "they didn't come for me"). I personally believe that this way of thinking is one of the most threatening to human equality, and that "straight apathy" is a major roadblock in the fight towards faster change. The non-LGBTQ community has a distinct power -- whether or not they want it -- to stand up on behalf of our oppressed fellow human beings, and it seems that the straight community has, to date, failed our LGBTQ citizens by not fully exercising that power. To support quietly from the sidelines while those oppressed stand on the battlefield is to ensure that change will come at a glacial pace.
As straight Americans we have two choices: we can choose to sit back and enjoy our rights as we have them, or we can realize that it is actually not freedom at all when our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues do not share these basic rights. We live in a time when the rights that we are accustomed to are really just the elite privileges of being born into the type of person that our government deems as "first-class." Accepting that reality brings up difficult questions. How will we fight this violation of human rights? Do we want to indulge in rights that are not for everyone, particularly that of marriage? Are we willing to make sacrifices in our lives to stand united with LGBTQ America? How would we as straight Americans expect our fellow citizens to act if it were we who were being treated as second-class ones? I can guarantee that if the situation were flipped, we would all be sick to our stomachs watching our friends and family casually stand up for us in order to save face and be agreeable. This is all currently a reality for LGBTQ citizens, and one that can be changed if we all want it, but that change will not come easily. If we are truly standing strong to end discrimination, we will inevitably find ourselves on a difficult path of our own. If not, we are a part of the apathy and hate that perpetuates inequality. We all know where it's headed, so the question that remains is how long we will all feel comfortable hitting the snooze button on our responsibilities as heterosexual allies.
What we do today, in 2012, not only has the power to end inequality but will one day serve to inspire a future generation. Our moment in history will be looked at under a microscope for the rest of time. It is both a privilege and a burden to live in these times, but no matter how we rationalize the oppression of fellow citizens, we will inevitably be faced with one question in the near future: how did we as Americans allow our LGBTQ citizens to be treated as second-class ones? It is the question that all Americans will ask in the future but should ask today.