A History of Inequality: Homophobia in America

On the surface, the United States may appear to be the pinnacle of freedom and individuality of the modern world but at the core of its value system there is a social construct in place that prematurely stifles any hope for true equality. It is called discrimination. It comes in many forms but the latest version of this democratic deterrent is homophobia. A look into the history of America will show anyone willing to acknowledge facts that the attitude Americans attribute to “tradition” regarding human sexuality is not innate but a learned behavioral pattern and perception that Americans have been trained by their society to believe and take on as their own. Knowledge of this fact calls to question the behavior of the general public toward homosexuals and points an accusatory finger at the common practice of discrimination based on sexual orientation in America, accentuating it for the heinous act it truly is.

The words “homo” and “gay” are commonly used among the youth of America today as half joking/ half offensive terms of endearment and mode of description for inanimate objects (That shirt is so gay!) but there was a time when the abbreviated version of the word homosexual, and even the word heterosexual, weren’t well known or widely used terms, let alone everyday slang. In the first part of the nineteenth century these terms were only known to those belonging to the medical field and their definitions and applications have changed drastically in the past one hundred years in the favor of a heterosexual majority. Jonathan Ned Katz analyzes the creation and transformation of the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” throughout the past century in “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” He explains:

“Heterosexuality began this century defensively, as the publicly unsanctioned private practice of the respectable middle class, and as the publicly put-down pleasure-affirming practice of urban working-class youths, southern blacks, and Greenwich Village bohemians. But by the end of the 1920s, heterosexuality had triumphed as dominant, sanctified culture.” (Katz 90)

He goes onto explain the transformation of the medical terms heterosexuality and homosexuality. In 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex” (Dorland 121) while in 1934 Miriam Webster’s dictionary defined heterosexuality as a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.” (Webster’s 137) This adaptation can be attributed to many societal changes over time. At the dawn of the nineteenth century sexual intercourse was largely regarded as an act meant for married couples consisting of a man and a woman for the sake of procreation by upper middle class America. As sexual activity became a leisurely pastime for more and more of the general population, it began to seem less and less offensive, especially with the upsurge of the hippie movement in the later decades of the nineteenth century. With this shift in perception of male-female sexuality a general acceptance of heterosexual behavior began the notion that this type of sexuality was the “right” type of sexuality. Whereas before heterosexuality had a negative connotation of overzealousness attached to it, it had now become the widely accepted “norm.” On the very same day that heterosexuality was given the U.S. stamp of approval and made a status quo, homosexuality was branded ‘abnormal.’

Homosexuality was defined simply as “eroticism for one of the same sex” (Webster’s 140) in the same 1934 Webster’s dictionary that defined heterosexuality as “normal sexuality”- a sly but apparent bias- suggesting that homosexuality is ‘abnormal’ since heterosexuality is defined as ‘normal.’ Today homosexuality is defined by Miriam Webster’s dictionary online as “of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex.” Though the current definition may seem innocent, the damage of the previous has already been done.

The textbook definition of the term may not seem offensive but society’s general behavior toward homosexuals and its lack of concern for their civil rights surely is. The view of homosexuality as ‘abnormal’ as exhibited by the dictionary definition of the term’s counterpart is repeatedly manifested and reinforced in today’s world. In Ruth Hubbard’s “The Social Construction of Sexuality,” she asserts that

“Western thinking about sexuality is based on the Christian equation of sexuality with sin, which must be redeemed through making babies. To fulfill the Christian mandate, sex must be intended for procreation, and thus all forms of sexual fulfillment or enjoyment other than heterosexuality are invalidated.” (Hubbard 65)

Because of this harsh reality the homosexual population is often degraded and left out of the general population which forces them to assimilate and “act straight” to maintain their status and safety within their community. The homosexual is constantly pressured to exhibit heterosexual behavior in a society full of people who simply are not sensitive to the differences and feelings of non-heterosexual people due to an array of circumstances including but not limited to religious upbringing as described by Hubbard and the general gender role ideology of America as described by Marilyn Frye. In a piece called ‘Oppression’ she chastises society for its conflicting and hypocritical treatment of homosexuals, women in particular. She breaks down the dozens of forms and fashions that all oppressed people, including homosexuals are faced with in an everyday struggle to please, comply and act “normal.”

She explains, “ the experience of oppressed people is that living one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such ways as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in- all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.” (Frye 156)

This gives you not only a sense of the helplessness and ostracism of the homosexual in predominantly heterosexual America but a look at the malevolent way societal constructs play a part in the treatment of American homosexuals. The issue is not that the majority is heterosexual but that they seem to pick on the minority- the homosexual. The method of choice for their bullying is discrimination. It can be seen in the educational system when violence occurs based on sexual orientation related conflict (similar to that of ‘The Toilet), the workplace when a job is denied based on sexual preference, and even in the laws made regarding homosexuals. (Why the hell shouldn’t they be able to get married?) Similar to the African American citizen during the Civil Rights Movement, the homosexual within the gay rights phenomenon is not only afflicted with a lack of civil rights but also left vulnerable to the loss of friends, family, property (in cases where legal marriage is not permitted), positive self image and even life all because of something they cannot change: their sexual orientation.

One compilation of data on hate crimes produced by religioustolerance.org states that a “study of gay, lesbian and bisexual adults showed that 41% reported being a victim of a hate crime at sometime during their life after the age of 16. Assuming that 8% of all adults are either homosexual or bisexual, this would mean that about seven million of them had been victimized during their lifetime out of a total of about 17 million homosexuals and bisexuals.” That’s more than a third of the entire group! These statistics showcase society’s view of non-heterosexuals as ‘abnormal’ manifested into physical violence. This wouldn’t be the case if the ideology of heterosexual correctness hadn’t been instilled in the general public from an early age but such

teachings are common practice in the majority of countries worldwide, especially America. Ruth Hubbard explains,

“There is no ‘natural’ human sexuality. This is not to say that our sexual feelings are ‘unnatural,’ but whatever feelings and activities our society interprets as sexual are channeled from birth into socially acceptable forms of expression.” (Hubbard 65)

Sex scientist Alfred Kinsey agrees that society stifles it’s sexually liberated members and proposes this notion. “Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum.” (Kinsey 97) His idea of this continuum asserted that all humans live in a wide array of positions on the spectrum between homo- and hetero- feelings and tendencies, and that it is unnatural to feel as though one must choose between the two or deny one for the sake of the other exclusively. Rather than force the members of a so-called democratic society into static and opposing groups based on sexual orientation, he suggested that all people accept the call of their hetero- and homo- poles and feel free to be anywhere in between.

Though not all Americans are capable of being that free spirited, it would do society a world of good to make each and every citizen feel as though their individual rights and beliefs aren’t being snuffed out by the consensus of an exclusive group that determines what is and is not appropriate or proper. And that’s just what the problem with discrimination in this country is. Those in power force their beliefs about tradition and religion down the throats of the masses and each small group within the conglomerate pays a price for their individual characteristics, beliefs

Sutton 1

and practices when their personal preferences are trivialized, proclaimed incorrect or taken away completely.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation has been exacerbated by America’s fixation on heterosexuality as proper, homosexuality as ‘abnormal,’ and a plethora of religious beliefs but it can be combated through an acceptance of more than one lifestyle as “ok” and an understanding of one’s fellow man. The societal measures put into place to keep heterosexuality “normal” have to be seen as such- societal confines. Tradition and normality cannot and will not dictate the course of human history forever. Things always change. Discrimination of any person based on any physical, spiritual, sexual, or ethnic characteristic cannot be tolerated in the self proclaimed land of the free. If you’re not free to love your God, your skin, your heritage and your choice of life partner- in what way are you free?

The Dream Not Yet Realized

The dream deferred in the famous Langston Hughes poem of 1951 and the dream not yet realized
in the even more well known ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963
are one in the same. You may wonder what dream both men from opposite ends of the same
country, creating literary works 12 years apart could have possibly shared. But the answer
is simple. The dream each man described, though very differently- was one of freedom, one
of equality- a necessary realization of the true capacity for greatness America could hold
when all its citizens are treated as human beings regardless of their color or creed, and a
warning of the detriment to society the failure to realize such a dream would ultimately
cause.

In the Hughes poem, ‘A Dream Deferred,’ the poet juxtaposes the two most extreme ways an
unrealized dream can affect the dreamer. Using poignant imagery and language he paints a
picture of the violent outcome of inequality and at the same times depicts the tired, weary
state of the downtrodden African population in America. With stanzas such as, “Does it dry
up like a raisin in the sun- or fester like a sore- and then run?” Hughes utilizes similes
to suggest that this dream of freedom and equality has been put off for so long that the
dreamers- African Americans- are so weary from struggle and agitated from being ignored that
they are more than likely to shrivel up and die from exhaustion or begin rioting in the
streets in enraged protest at the system that continues to defer their dream.

From history we know that in the 1950s- the dream of equality for Black people had hardly been realized. The Black population in America faced injustice after injustice as the judicial system tried to come to terms with an awakening sense of shame while continuously implimenting new ways to financially, politically, physically, socially and psychologically confine people of
color to their supposed role as peons. The dream had not been realized but it was made REAL
by the likes of Langston Hughes. In the decades that followed the work of Hughes and
others during the Harlem Renaissance- the discourse on racial equality in America would
change drastically.

In the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expertly expresses the urgency of
immediate steps toward equality, harmony among all races, creeds and religions, and the
dangers of a failure to heed the ever present discontent among America’s Black citizens. He
also makes reference to American legislation and music, African American Baptist church
hymns and an American President which I feel adds to the efficacy and depth of the speech.
Lines such as, “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This
sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an
invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

Dr. King effectively demands that African Americans be granted their rights as citizens in a logical fashion. He also utilizes emotion to make his points not only to those who would oppress people of color, but to his constituents as well. He reasons, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” King takes every angle you could think of and
addresses each in a well crafted, holistic, inclusive call to arms for those in power to
fulfill the American promise of freedom and for all citizens to work together toward
achieving that freedom. In 1963, 12 years after Hughes warned of the dangers that could
follow this dream deferred, Dr. King was making the same warning.

Has the dream Hughes and Dr. King referred to all those years ago been realized? Of course
not. The once overt, in your face and brash form of racism has been replaced with a quiet,
quickly covered up and easily explained away version- but it still exists. In the wake of
drastic improvements such as the right to vote and social welfare programs that benefit the
historically and systematically downtrodden- new issues have arisen. The Jim crow era has
been replaced with Cuny tuition hikes and ridiculous unemployment rates. New age lynchings
take place in dimly lit hallways, allies and dark streets where cops repeatedly shoot down
men of color after “mistakenly identifying” objects such as sticks and wallets as guns and
later reasoning they “felt their lives were in danger.” Young women of color are made to
believe sex appeal equates beauty thanks to the representation of women of color in the
media. But no one wants to fund planned parenthood when the same misled girls end up
pregnant at 16.

On paper it would appear that Black people and everyone else are working on a level playing
feild- at least from a legislative stand point- with all the laws against discrimination,
amendments to grant voting rights, etc. But the statistics showcase the harsh reality of how
differently people of certain ethnicities are paid for the same jobs, how drastically the
graduation rates for young people of color differ from that of their constituents of other
ethnicities and other sobering facts. The ramifications of 400 years of slavery and its after
math will not be easily dealt with or quickly overcome. People of color have certainly won
some battles in the past century- but the war is far from over. The relevance and resonance
of the works of Hughes and King in present day America attest to that fact.

An Exercise in Critical Thinking: The OMG Girlz- Entertainment or Embarrassment?

I was on youtube the other day, checking out a group of talented young men that go by the name Mindless Behavior since they’re all the rage with BOTH the step groups I currrently teach, one downtown Brooklyn, the other on the upper East Side of Manhattan. At the end of the video, the screen is full of related videos, and one is a freeze frame of a young woman with electric blue hair. I click the video and watch. I later find out this young lady is Zonnique “Star” Pullins, daughter of “Tiny” from the old school all girl R&B group Xscape, step daughter to rap icon T.I., and 1/3 of recently signed girl group the OMG Girlz. The song? Gucci This (Gucci That)- their first major label single.

My initial feelings caused me to shake my head and wave an imaginary disapproving finger. I was concerned for the girls image and the content of the song. As you’ll see from the video posted above, they wear HEAVY make-up and sport long, luxurious, multi-colored weaves. In this particular song- their first single- which is setting the stage for their image- they sing “I’m so official yall/ you can check my record/ my dress code is elevated/ no one can do it better/ what type’a chick you know/ rock Louie (Vuitton) from head to toe?/ I’m incredible” Immediately I’m reminded of my issues with mainstream rap and r&b today. The obsession with material items is truly astonishing, and the fact that these young ladies are 15 and 16 promoting Gucci, Fendi and Louie blows my mind. I’m wondering whose idea it was to dress them this way, and to give them this song? I’m thinking the world out side of young, urban listeners will immediately see this and think “ghetto!” I’m saddened by this.

But then I have a thought. Why is it that a young Black girl with bright pink hair is deemed “ghetto” when if a White girl dyes her hair some unnaturally bright color she’s considered “edgy” or “badass?” It’s the same with tattoos. Then I’m floored by a societal construct. I realize that as Afrocentric as I think I am, I have internalized a multitude of beliefs that did not originate in my own mind and that I was allowing them to affect how I perceive my very own people. Ridiculous! Am I still annoyed at the content of the song? Definitely. There is much more these young ladies could be talking about than clothes and swag. Am I turned off by all the make up? Without a doubt. Because all 3 of them are gorgeous and they don’t need it! Same goes for the weaves, but I quickly rub my temples and take a second look at the video with the industry in mind.

After the second look, I’m kinda groovin. Taking myself out of the role of teacher/ parent and just listening to the song as a young adult and someone with an understanding of the formulaic methodologies used to make hit records- it has some great qualities. It’s up-tempo, so you can dance to it (which they do), and it’s an anthem, very catchy, something every young woman would love to sing and think about herself. (See you might have the same outfit/ But if you ain’t got my swag you can’t rock it like this!) Plus, as tired as I am of hearing the word swag (God help me) at 15 and 16 what else are they going to sing about? Relationships? Sex? Cause no one’s buying an album about how they feed their pets and go to school. Not to mention that with society’s machismo double standard, if they came out with an album all about boys the way Mindless Behavior dropped an album about nothing but girls, they’d be heavily scrutinized and I would bet one of my kidneys that their virginity would be questioned. After considering the alternatives, I decide that swag is a-okay to sing about.

I also realize that although the song suggests that the girls wear nothing but name brands, you don’t see a single one on them throughout the entire video. They’re in brightly colored leggings, t shirts, boots and jackets for one scene and colorful jeans, a skirt, a tutu and plain tops for another. No Fendi. No Louie. No Gucci. Just swag. They giddily try on shades and hold shirts up to one another for approval as they pretend to shop and dance around. And you know what? They’re adorable.

So what do we have here? A group of pretty, confident young girls that like to shop and dress up with a catchy hit record on their hands? Or another addition to a generation of young women of color only concerned with their physical appearance and rockin’ the latest gear? Personally, I wish them the best in all their endeavors because I always like to see young people of color succeed, and I know if I had the means to make my child a star, and they wanted to have a career in music, I would make that happen for them by any means necessary. What people think about you, and how you actually are rarely coincide when you’re in the spotlight and I’m sure that is an especially difficult task for our young people to handle. On one hand. I want to ask some of our young and even our adult artists- what are you doing? Where are your parents? How do you think people will look at you after they hear this song? On the other hand, why should it matter to our kids, our adult entertainers and even the loud “ghetto” girl on the street how people who don’t know them personally look at them? Should we be teaching them to be the best they can be and do what makes them happy with themselves in mind, or teaching them that they have to be twice as good/ smart/ pretty/ well dressed/ manner-able as someone with a different complexion to receive the exact same accolades?  Sometimes it’s hard to call it.

What do you think of the OMG Girlz new video “Gucci This?”

 

 

On Troy Davis, Political Awakening & Being a Black Educator in America

    In light of the Troy Davis execution last week I have become rather concerned with politics. Troy Davis had been on death row for 22 years as the defendant implicated in the murder of a police officer. In the 22 years the case was open and he remained on death row, but had not yet been put to death, he was tried in numerous courts and given the opportunity on several occasions to prove his innocence. No judge seemed to believe he was innocent although in the course of the same 22 year stretch 7 of the 9 witnesses whose testimony implicated Davis as the shooter would go on to recant their statements and admit in courts of law that they were coerced by police to lie.

At his lethal injection Davis maintained his innocence, apologized to the family of the victim for their loss and pleaded with his supporters to keep fighting the case. The execution of a Black man in America with so much doubt surrounding the case leaves a bitter taste in my mouth about the country I will one day be an educator in. Whether or not Davis is guilty I will never know. What I do know is that in a court of law a defendant must be proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and certainly should be proven guilty in such a manner if they are to be executed. The Davis case was chock full of doubt but it made no difference to the Supreme Court when they let the state of Georgia execute Davis this month.

I am not a supporter of the death penalty because in a system this flawed, such a device could and has proven fatal in the case of more than one innocent person. I am no fan of the system either, as it is disproportionately filled with my constituents, but at least there is the unlikely possibility of rehabilitation and release. there is no coming back from death. What’s more, taking a life for a life is not justice. It is revenge. The life of one person does not mean more or less than the life of any other no matter the complexion of the skin or how heinous the crime. If someone shot and killed a member of my family I wouldn’t want them dead in 15 minutes. I’d want them to rot in prison and have to protect their back side on  daily basis. But that’s just me.

I have mixed emotions about my sudden fervor to watch the news, ask questions, read articles and use the internet to research policies and laws passed in education, finance, foreign policy and a host of other areas where the decisions of a select few influence the lives of the majority. On one hand I am proud to know the details of current legislation being passed and be able to hold conversations about the plight of Brown children in America. It brings me joy to know I will one day be one of the good teachers and have a positive effect on my community. I take pride in being an educated woman of color and look forward to making contributions to the world starting with my community and constituents.

On the other hand I am ashamed. It should have always been this way. As much as I read books and discuss current events and have a deep love for my community I have never been more politically minded than I am today. Someone shouldn’t have had to die for me to develop a burning desire to improve my community, our judicial system and democracy as a whole. I know about slavery. I know about the the civil rights movement. I know about Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. Did I really need one more account of injustice inflicted on a person of color by the very government meant to uphold his rights and civil liberties to take me over the edge? To convert me from a woman of words to a woman of action? I guess I did.

The most painful part of my self reflection is when I think about all the Black people who have yet to undergo this transformation. They were outraged by the Troy Davis case and heart broken the night of his execution. The next day? They were writing facebook statuses about Jersey shore. They were posting pretty pictures of their new hair styles on tumblr. They were shopping, tweeting, laughing and living life. Troy Davis was the farthest thing from their minds. The sad truth is that this is the trend for African Americans. The moment a cause is prevalent and on the front page we run to be a part of it and show our enthusiasm and support. We circulate online petitions and repost facebook notes and statuses. We post links to news coverage of rallies and debates. But the next day all is forgiven and its back to our smart phones and sneakers.

The harsh reality is if we bothered to look we could find cause to status about for each day of the year in a country full of so much inequality related to race, class and poverty. But the average American doesn’t know what’s going on until its plastered on the front page in size 36 font. The average African American doesn’t know what’s going on until The N.A.A.C.P. or Reverend Al Sharpton draws enough attention to a cause that it merits media coverage and/or a friend or family member brings it up in conversation.

I am not implying that my people are ignorant or unintelligent. I am suggesting that they are absurdly uninformed and make no strides toward becoming informed because they would rather enjoy their lives as individuals than struggle for social justice as a collective. I can understand the tendency to only care about yourself and those close to you. I have parents, younger siblings, grandparents, a fiance, a son and close friends that I hold near and dear to my heart. But they are all affected in one way or another by the current state of the American government and its justice system. It is for this reason that I urge all people of color to be informed about their past and present so they can be a part of creating a more equitable and accessible future for one another and themselves.