by Tom Avila
It was just after having lunch with a group of folks at CCJ that I was invited to start writing for this Web site. We had been discussing the 2008 election and conversation turned to the difficulty of getting most presidential candidates to answer clearly and concisely about their stances on LGBT issues like marriage and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Well, the presidential election has now come and gone and, as we know, the results were historic. That’s the word that has replaced “change” in our collective vocabulary.
A new day for America. The first step in an America where, as individuals as diverse as The View's Sherri Shepherd and CNN's Roland S. Martin have pointed out, every child now has living proof that they can achieve anything.
Or, most children now have proof they can be anything. At this time in this new America, anything is only possible if your child is heterosexual.
While many parents can look at their children and say that they can be anything they want to be, parents of children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender cannot. In Arkansas, as of Nov. 4, those children cannot become adoptive or foster parents. In a growing number of states, they cannot have their relationships legally recognized in any fashion – marriage or civil union. In 30 states, there is nothing to protect them from being fired from their jobs on the basis of their sexual orientation. That number is even larger for transgender individuals.
But my role on this site is not to set up shop as an advocate for LGBT rights and responsibilities; it’s to talk about journalism. Given that I’ve managed to work the Pussycat Dolls and a blog shout out or two into past columns, I figure I can make this work as well.
If there is something that has struck me about coverage of the recent election and the ballot measures that passed in California, Arizona, Florida and Arkansas (though I think there are still some who are surprised that there were states beyond California looking at legislation that would have significant impact on the LGBT community), it has been the ignorance of history and the failure to challenge or acknowledge that gap.
You see, particularly among those individuals who play the part of pundits, there became this recurring theme that the LGBT community wanted too much too fast. That the community somehow failed to understand that you have to accept that there will be incremental progress and recurring setbacks. That was the opinion offered by former Virginia state Sen. Jeanemarie Devolites Davis when she was a guest on D.C. public radio affiliate WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show on Nov. 7.
And to be absolutely fair, the LGBT community used this same rational to explain why some of us backed a non-transgender inclusive version of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act. We can’t all go forward together. Change happens in fits and starts, and so on.
But here’s the problem. To have statements like these made and left unquestioned or unexamined by the mainstream media – because I think it’s safe to say that most non-LGBT individuals aren’t picking up their local gay newspaper to read up on the impact of ballot initiatives – takes for granted that a history does exist. A history that is long and largely unknown by the general population.
I mean, if schools are being asked to legally defend having a book about two princes falling in love in their library, there seems little hope that middle and high school students will be learning about the 1969 Stonewall Riots in their American history classes. Which means the history that might have helped some consider initiatives like Proposition 8 or Proposition 102 and their aftermath differently continues to remain in the closet. And journalists – even those who consider their beat to be “diversity” – are missing the opportunity to open that door.
Stonewall has become this iconic reference for the start of what is referred to by some as the gay liberation movement, but that is because most do not know about the Compton Cafeteria Riots of 1969. The release of the Gus Van Sant biopic Milk will educate some about the election and later assassination of California’s first openly gay elected official, but there is little chance that important figures like Barbara Gittings or Don Slater will gain the same blockbuster status as Spiderman.
While some know that LGBT people were among those targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust, most do not know that individuals were tortured and tried for their sexual orientation and gender identity during the Spanish Inquisition. If the dates aren’t readily coming to you, this means that gays and lesbians were being put to public trial and stretching racks in the 15th century.
Some might know that until the early 1970s homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, but most do not know about the Code of Justinian, which made being gay a crime punishable by death. That was in the early 500s (though the Byzantine Emperor Justinian cribbed some of his ideas from an earlier set of laws).
So the argument that the LGBT community is being impatient doesn’t really stand up to the literal test of time. Instead, it becomes an easy way of moving around the discussion of how we can celebrate the historic nature of the success of one minority community while not giving equal weight to the losses of another. It lets us neatly compartmentalize a group outside our national narrative.
Now, do I expect every journalist in the country to go out and earn a few dozen advanced degrees in the histories of the multitude of minority communities that make up this country?
Absolutely not – the student loan bills would start to look like a federal bailout program.
What I do expect is that reporters, producers and editors will begin to understand that there are individuals whose knowledge of history can give shape to our contemporary discussions. When that circle of pundits and talking heads is gathered to opine on why we are where we are, make sure those voices are included. Set a place at the table for the experts whose broader view can help us understand how the events of today figure in our collective history.
And do this particularly when the events to be examined say as much about where we are as a country of diverse communities as, say, the election of the first African-American president of the United States.
The old chestnut about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat is not our greatest danger. The biggest danger is when those who do not know history dismiss it altogether.
Tom Avila is a staffer with NLGJA. He takes full ownership of the opinions offered in this essay (and this e-mail address that you can use to offer your own), but the history discussed belongs to everyone. Yes, even that stuff about Emperor Justinian.