The solution to almost any human conflict or divide is to see the other side as persons, and not as “the other.”
This year the Student Government Association election on the campus of The University of Alabama saw its first openly gay presidential candidate. Despite the vitriol of a few cowards on an anonymous comment app, The University of Alabama was remarkably quiet on Thompson’s orientation. The campus didn’t seem to care. Maybe this suggests apathy, but given that voter turnout rivaled any election in the past three decades, apathy is unlikely.
Justin Thompson lost the election, but commanded 3,785 votes, 36 percent of the votes cast, and several openly gay individuals won Student Senate seats.
On one of the more conservative campuses in one of the most conservative states in the nation, a gay man running for SGA president went mostly unnoticed. Is it possible that one candidate being gay wasn’t a big deal?
This shift in dynamic is telling. The LGBT movement has seen rapid, and often unexpected, progress in recent months. There were, of course, the expected victories on the coasts, but courts have also struck down bans on same-sex unions in conservative states like Texas, as even more lawsuits are filed elsewhere, including Alabama.
With 54 percent of Americans supporting same-sex marriage and 61 percent of Republicans under 30 in favor of same-sex marriage, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, LGBT advocates knew it was only a matter of time before marriage equality spread across the fifty states. But most put that time at decades, not years.
The LGBT movement advanced much more rapidly than the civil rights movements that preceded it. Affluence, ethnicity and the Internet age all certainly play a role.
I’d like to draw attention to a different factor, however. I call this factor the “first façade.” Unlike most previous civil rights movements, not all members of the LGBT community are recognizably members of their minority. Often times, people find themselves engaging with an LGBT individual before discovering that individual’s LGBT status. This ability to forge a human connection prior to the revelation of minority status is the “first façade” and provides insight into the nature of bigotry.
Allow me to use an example. I am an openly gay male, but I find that most heterosexual individuals aren’t able to discern this at first glance. This gives me an opportunity. It allows someone to identify with me as a human being, and it stops me from being instantly labeled “the other.”
Once the revelation comes, it’s hard for someone to go back to seeing me as “the other.” The cognitive dissonance between “homosexuals are evil” and “I like this gay guy” can happen because I’ve been seen as a person first. I believe most parents, even the most staunchly conservative of parents, have this same battle when their children come out. When U.S. Senator Rob Portman changed his position on same-sex marriage following his son’s coming out, I imagine the battle in his head being a significant one. How can I continue to hate a group of people while I love this member of that group?
In 1978, the openly gay politician Harvey Milk urged, “Gay brothers and sisters … you must come out …”
This call to action created a shift in the manner in which gay activism was conducted and was the first mainstream usage of the first façade as a method of addressing societal divisions. Instead of emphasizing their otherness, many LGBT individuals presented themselves as your neighbor or your coworker. While not losing sight of their distinctive and vital sub-culture, LGBT individuals refused to simplified designation of the other.
I’m not saying this eliminates bigotry or is a panacea for division. It isn’t.
For one, most other minorities don’t have the luxury of the first façade for their initial impressions. Women, African Americans, and Orthodox Jews share characteristics that solidify their “otherness.” And even if these characteristics could be hidden, the solution shouldn’t be to shed individual uniqueness for societal acceptance.
It does, however, hint at a solution, not on the part of the other, but on the part of us. It may sound hokey, and you may be tuning me out if you haven’t already, but there’s power in perspective, and if we’re cognizant of the times when we jump to seeing someone as “other” instead of human, perhaps we can begin to address our own internalized prejudice.
So strive to open your perspective. Strive to see others as human, because the differences that distinguish us are petty in comparison to the similarities that connect us.