Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Progress and (Non)Inevitability

One thing I've learned in my time teaching history is that people assume that if time is moving forward, then progress has been made. I have them write weekly response papers, and in the first couple weeks, a great many of them will say something like, "Education was only available for the very upper-class white people, but now we have equal educational opportunity for everyone! USA! USA!"

The fact is, we don't have equal educational opportunities for everyone in 2011. And while racial minorities have achieved full legal equality, racism and discrimination are still very real. But the rhetoric around these issues doesn't allow for that, because the official narrative is that we have a benevolent state that will do the right thing for people. In fact, as James Loewen and others have asserted, there have been major backslides in many human rights-related arenas, and the story that is told of the benevolent state is meant to keep people from seeing the value in activism. Successful social movements aren't taught in schools because the government doesn't want anyone to get any funny ideas.

So anyway, it wasn't a surprise to me to read that most Americans think queer people already have employment protections. We're supposed to be the land of the free, right? So how could it possibly be true that it is still entirely legal to fire someone for being gay in 29 states? Just for that? Some cities, like the one I live in, give protections beyond what the state does, so that I can't be fired or face housing discrimination for being gay. But if I leave my town, it's a crap shoot. And harassment of gay people is on the rise where I live.

I don't say this to be gloomy, but to point out that there's more work to be done. We need employment protections passed, and that must be trans-inclusive. Anything else is just more oppression.

As Queerty and Andrew Sullivan point out, we have to do the work ourselves, and we have to tell our own stories about our communities. Letting our stories be co-opted by corporations and government officials who want to make a buck or pat themselves on the back is not going to help us achieve equality or stay safe. Hold the government accountable, to be sure, but let's not forget that there are plenty of grassroots or underground movements out there doing good work.

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