Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dan Furmansky: "Why We Have Pride"

The following was written in 2007 by Equality Maryland executive director, Dan Furmansky (pictured at right).


Why We Have Pride
By Dan Furmansky

Gay Pride . . . is a relatively abstract concept for most Americans, who picture drag queens, rollerblading nuns, beer gardens, booths with gimmicky giveaways, and gyrating, half-naked cowboys on floats. Indeed, many straight Americans simply don't understand why there is Pride to begin with, and many consider it unsavory. Some LGBT Americans feel the same way. Personally, I love gyrating cowboys as much as the next red-blooded homosexual male, but I must confess that over the years I have found it a struggle to really connect with Pride and its core principles. However, speaking to religious groups the past few weeks and contemplating why we hold Pride festivities has reminded me what a deeply meaningful, deeply spiritual event in our lives Pride can be.

Pride is a day for LGBT people and those who care about social justice to recall where we’ve been as a people. Many of us know of the origins of Pride at Stonewall in NYC in the late 1960s, when drag queens and gay men fought back against police harassment and brutality and said, resoundingly, E-N-O-U-G-H. With this rebellion as its backdrop, Pride has emerged as a holiday of liberation, redemption, salvation, starvation, pain, celebration, progress and resolve. It's a holiday where we as a people celebrate where we have been and where we hope to go.

As many of you know, Equality Maryland has joined the ACLU in fighting for marriage equality in Maryland. Our organization submitted an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief in the case which focused on the history of discrimination against LGBT people. A run-down of this frightening discrimination crystalizes why there is a Pride holiday to begin with.

The brief talked about times when people could be sentenced to death for committing acts of sodomy. Until 1961, all fifty states outlawed sodomy – thus rendering it illegal for gay men and lesbians to engage in intimate acts with loved ones. The first reported sodomy case in the United States was a decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals. In that case, the Court upheld an indictment charging the defendant with the crime of sodomy, “that most horrid and detestable crime (among Christians not to be named).” From 1946 through 1965, there were a total of 384 sodomy, crimes against nature, and sexual perversion arrests in Baltimore alone.

This is why we have Pride.

The brief talked about LGBT people being labeled insane by the psychiatric community until the 1970s. Gay men and lesbians could be institutionalized and subjected to “therapies.” These ranged from the comparatively less invasive – such as psychotherapy and hypnosis – to the more severe, such as aversion therapy, castration, hysterectomies, lobotomies, electroshock treatment, and the administration of untested drugs.

Just take a moment to digest this information: They cut our brains.

This is why we have Pride.

The brief talked about stakeouts of gay establishments, decoy operations, surveillance, scrutiny, and potential attack. It talked about people being denied hire or being fired from their jobs. It recalled 1953, when President Eisenhower set forth Executive Order 10,450, which required the dismissal of all government employees who were “sex perverts,” including homosexuals, from both the civilian and military branches of the Federal government. This ban – which presumably affected many gay and lesbian Maryland residents in the Washington metropolitan area – remained in effect until 1975.

It was only six years ago that Maryland banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Discrimination against transgender individuals is still legal in all of Maryland except Baltimore, and a bill to make this discrimination illegal failed in Senate committee this year by one vote.

Legislatures and courts have denied gay men and lesbians the ability to adopt children and, in some instances, even to visit or raise their own offspring. These practices are not a thing of the past and some states, like Florida, have enshrined it as the law of the land.

Nor is the epidemic of violence against the gay – and especially transgender – community, which is well-chronicled by the FBI, a thing of the past.

Same-sex couples personally know what it’s like to walk down the street and fear that you are standing too close to your partner, or that a crowd of young people will harass you if you appear “together.” They know what it means to think twice before kissing a partner goodbye in your front yard, at the airport, wherever, all for fear someone will be made uncomfortable, or worse, become aggressive.

The brief is a mere backdrop to a case that, if positively decided in our favor, has the potential to change so many lives for the better. When I think about why we have Pride, I think about Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane, the lead plaintiffs who have endured so much to be at the forefront of the fight for marriage equality.

Lisa and Gita told me just last week that their youngest daughter wanted to have a play date after school with a classmate, so they called up the classmate’s parents and left a message. They received a voice mail back saying “we respectfully decline your invitation.” Lisa followed up and asked if another day would work better. The classmate's father told her, “we understand your civil liberties, but we have our religious beliefs and we are teaching them to our daughter.”

“Let me get this straight,” Lisa said. “You don’t want your daughter to come over because our daughter has two mothers?”

“Correct,” he replied.

We have Pride not just for ourselves, but for our children. We have Pride for the Kevin-Douglas Olives among us. Kevin, who lives in Baltimore, is locked in a legal battle with his deceased partner’s estranged parents. Honoring the will of his partner of seven years, Russell, Kevin buried him in a Quaker cemetery with an adjoining plot for himself. Russell’s parents, who never accepted their son, have sued to have the will overturned and the body exhumed and moved to the family’s plot. Now, Kevin is in an ongoing legal struggle that is costing him thousands upon thousands of dollars, just to make sure his partner’s last wishes and the integrity of their relationship is preserved.

Yes, there are a million reasons why we have Pride.

Last month I got a call from a woman whose elderly uncle lost his partner of decades. Because of the crippling inheritance tax assessed on the Takoma Park house he shared with his partner, her uncle will likely be forced out of his own home. If the couple had been married, he wouldn’t be taxed on half the home as though he were inheriting from a perfect stranger as opposed to the man he loved and shared his life with for decades.

Pride is about us as a people. About our struggle. Our ongoing struggle.

It’s about taking a break from comments by General Peter Pace, and reports of people beaten at Moscow’s gay pride parade, and arrests in Iran, and all the Republican candidates for President saying Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is working just great.

During Pride, we forget about the society that does the things to us that force us to create Pride to begin with. We ignore the source of that pain and we get onto our floats and wear crazy skimpy outfits and drink in beer gardens and eat meat on a stick and embrace our honest selves and visit pride booths and make unusually large donations to LGBT rights organizations (!) and visit LGBT affirming congregations. We celebrate our cultural diversity as a community, and for many of us our Pride in being both racial and sexual minorities in society.

But Pride is so much more.

Pride is about where we’ve been as individuals that brought us to this day, today.

We have Pride because I was called a faggot in Junior High School and pushed into lockers and had my books scattered and went home with black and blue marks on my thighs and arms. We have Pride because as I personally came to the realization that I was gay at the age of 19, I had one thought that ran through my head day after day after day for months on end: I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead...

One night after my grandfather’s funeral, I was so consumed by my own depression and my fear of coming out to a cruel society that I considered driving my car off an embankment. I pictured my car careening into a tree, a branch shattering the windshield and cracking my skull so I would die instantly.

That is why we have Pride. Because nothing about my story is unique. Because while I was born gay, I wasn’t born with a propensity to hurt myself.

So many of us struggle to own our proper dignity, value, and self-respect. And Pride is our chance to take pleasure and satisfaction in the achievement it took for us to get to the place where we could celebrate Pride.

This year, more than ever, remember Pride as a spiritual holiday. Take some time to think about where you’ve been and what it took for you to win the war with yourself that society imposed upon you. Share your coming out story with someone. Or ask someone to tell you what it took for them to come out of the closet.

Finally, no matter how safe your personal bubble may be, remember that the collective struggle is far from over. We all have a role to play in this movement towards greater understanding, and we are meant to be here in this moment in time to play our part. One day, there will be nothing bittersweet about Pride any longer – just a remembrance of the struggle that once was. Until then, we continue to honor our community and ourselves. And we celebrate.

Dan Furmansky

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