Women's Rights and Gay Rights: What Can Be Learned in the Quest for Equality

The gay rights movement has gained speed and that same generation of young people who are daring to dream for more are overwhelmingly in favor of equal rights in all regards.
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Perhaps people find it easier not to support the gay rights movement, to tell themselves that these individuals are somehow less deserving of equality under the law, because gay and lesbian individuals make up a relatively small sector of society, one which, in many communities across the nation, one hardly encounters at all, certainly not with any personal face attached to it.

But think of it for a moment in comparison to a movement that, as a straight woman, I have plenty of personal experience with and which it closely mirrors, a movement which affected more than half of the people in the United States, and indeed, in the world: the women's movement. Before the current battle over the evolution of marriage, a different war for marital and personal freedoms was fought in this country, by and for women who were hoping to find something more than just marriage, as well as more rights within that union.

Up until very recently, then, women and gays have been, if not in the same boat, then at least sailing in the same direction.

In the distant past both groups suffered from the sort of discrimination that today we find abhorrent; women not only couldn't vote, they couldn't own property, divorce an abusive husband, or act as a witness in a court of law. Up until the 1860s, sodomy in Britain was punishable, and through the 1830s actually punished, by death.

Moving into the early twentieth century, women were still without a vote, and thus a voice. At this time, gays were the targets of police raids, and, as laws were on the books barring them from activities as simple as public assembly, they, too, were unable to speak for themselves in any meaningful way.

But in the 1920s, the tide began, however so slowly, to turn in the direction of justice. In 1920, a Federal decision (boy does that sound familiar...) gave American women the right to vote, regardless of the fact that, in many parts of the United States, this was still an incredibly unpopular move. In 1924, after years of being forced into the shadows, the first homosexual rights organization, The Society for Human Rights, stepped out into the light. True, it didn't last long (the group was soon broken up by police forces), but it was a giant step in the right direction.

Incremental gains have been made by both groups throughout the twentieth-century. After WWII forced thousands of women into formerly 'men-only' jobs, the idea of women doing something outside the home started to take off. Detailing all the amazing achievements, the risks taken, the sacrifices made during the intervening years would take 100 op/eds. Suffice it to say that I am proud to say that because of the crusading women of the last few decades, the last generation or two of women growing up in this country have rarely if ever had to question whether or not they would be able to pursue their dreams, their goals, and their passions due to something as fundamental as their gender. Hundreds and thousands of women who came before them, and who spoke out against the way they were being treated, have given them a place in society that even fifty years ago few women would have dared hope for.

The gay-rights movement has gained ground, too; that same generation of young people who are daring to dream for more are overwhelmingly in favor of equal rights in all things, including marriage, for gay men and women.

But here is where the story of women's rights and gay rights diverge; while both groups still face discrimination, while neither battle has been "won," only gay and lesbian individuals are still being subjected to a legally-enforced brand of second-class citizenry. Whereas our young women are being told to shoot for the stars, that there is no glass ceiling anymore, that they can be and do anything if they put their minds to it, gay and lesbian individuals are hearing a different message: you can live your lives the way you like, but only up to a point.

In 2010, would you be willing to look at more than half of the people around you, your mothers, sisters, daughters and friends, and tell them that they should continue to put up with a "less-than" position in society? If the answer is no (and I hope it is), keep in mind that the gay individuals who are asking to marry are also sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, loving parents and loved children; would you tell them, then, that they are not as good, not as deserving, not as worthy of equality? If it was your friend, loved one, or child, could you like him or her in the eye and say "this right isn't for you?"

This isn't a problem being fought in distant courtrooms and the halls of justice for a group of unknown people, this is a fight being fought just down the street, in your local public high school, by your friends, neighbors, and family members. We have to stop thinking about gay and lesbian individuals as a group of "others" and start seeing them as they are - people just like us, living the same sorts of lives as we are, with the same hopes and dreams for themselves.

If the struggles of the women's movement have taught us anything, it's that there's no limit on what an individual can do when given a real chance. But until we give them those chances, tell them they're deserving, allow them to be equal, we'll never know just how much we're missing.

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