Tag Archives: identity

What’s Different?

As the Supreme Court prepares to take up one of the persistent “I won’t bake a cake for ‘those people'” cases, a friend asked me to explain the difference between a merchant who refused to do business with a Neo-Nazi group and one who refused to serve gays or Jews.

It’s an important distinction, but not an immediately intuitive one.

Civil rights laws were initially a response to businesses that refused to serve African-Americans–many of the proprietors claimed that their religious beliefs prohibited “mixing” the races (much as those refusing service to LGBTQ folks today base that refusal on religious teachings). Those civil rights measures–later expanded to protect other groups– were based upon an important principle that undergirds our legal system.

Our system is based upon the premise that your right to be treated like everyone else depends upon your behavior, not your identity.

As a result of that important distinction, I can post a sign saying “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” I cannot post a sign saying “No blacks, no Jews.” I can “discriminate” between customers behaving properly, and those who are disruptive, are unwilling to pay, or are otherwise exhibiting behaviors that I believe are harmful to my ability to ply my trade.

I cannot discriminate based upon my customers’ race, religion, or–in states that have inclusive civil rights law–sexual orientation or gender identity.

The confusion between a merchant’s unwillingness to have her business associated with the KKK, for example, and unwillingness to serve LGBTQ customers is reminiscent of arguments raised when Indiana was (unsuccessfully) trying to add “four words and a comma”(sexual orientation, gender identity) to Indiana’s civil rights law, which still does not include protections for gays or transgender individuals.

During those arguments, opponents of the added protections asserted that “forcing” a business to serve gay customers would be indistinguishable from forcing a baker to make a cake with a swastika or forcing Muslim or Kosher butchers to sell pork.

That comparison, however, is fatally flawed.

If I go into a menswear shop and ask for a dress, am I being discriminated against when I’m informed the store doesn’t sell women’s clothes? Of course not.

Civil rights protections don’t require the baker who doesn’t bake swastika cakes, or the butcher who never sells pork to add those items to their inventory. Civil rights laws do keep the baker from refusing to sell the cakes he does make to “certain people.”

The kosher butcher doesn’t have to carry pork, but he can’t refuse to sell his kosher chickens and beef to Muslim or Christian customers, again, so long as those customers can pay and are abiding by the generally applicable rules of the shop.

The distinction may not be immediately obvious, but it’s important. The essence of civil rights is the principle that you can be denied service for your chosen behaviors, not for your identity.

I hope that helps…

About that Identity Crisis

I blogged yesterday about our unfortunate experiences entering Stratford Upon Avon. (My unstated conclusion was that the town is confident that William (Shakespeare) will continue to pull in the tourists, and additional efforts are unnecessary.)

That said, we did encounter a couple of wonderful, helpful people. When we got off the train in Stratford, we were on the opposite side of the tracks from the station, requiring us to negotiate one of those bridges that spans the tracks. Up a flight of stairs, across, and then down to the platform. I had the big suitcase, and a young man insisted on carrying it for me up, across and then down the steps, despite my protests that I could handle it. Bob’s experience was similar–a man traveling with his toddler daughter took both cases across the bridge for him.

In my case, the helpful young man was an Arab. Bob’s helper was black.

I don’t want to use this happenstance to draw any large social conclusions; I simply note it. But we have both remarked upon the changing composition of the English crowds we’ve encountered on this trip. Americans like to think our country is more diverse than other western industrialized nations, but if our observations are representative, multiculturalism is hardly confined to the U.S. As we looked out the windows at each of the 15 stops between London and Stratford, we were struck by the number of women wearing hijabs (even a few burkas), and others who clearly were not from stereotypical English backgrounds.

Those observations made me think about our dinner companions on the just-ended cruise. We ate with a couple from Switzerland whose son lives in Florida and whose daughter lives in Germany. The wife’s sister lives in Paris. The couple themselves have a flat in Nice, an apartment in Florida and their “ancestral” home in Switzerland. They are multi-lingual (I always feel like an ugly American around people who are fluent in three or four languages…). During our trip, we met a number of people with such multiple “homes” and what one might call “shared identities.”

Is there a point to these random observations? Probably not–unless we chalk up all these experiences to “the world is changing” and “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” Stereotypes–racial, national, religious, what-have-you–have never been particularly reliable, but in the world we inhabit, they have gone from being marginally useful to downright misleading.

Sometimes, travel outside one’s safe, familiar world is a forcible reminder that identity is a social construct.

I Think We Need Truth in Labeling

My best friend called me yesterday, fuming about a solicitation call she’d just received.

The woman caller identified herself as a volunteer for the Republican Party. She began by thanking my friend for her past, generous support of the GOP–and indeed, my friend was an active Republican voter and donor for many years. Her husband served two terms in the General Assembly as a Republican State Senator. However, like so many of my friends and family, she no longer supports the party, and when the woman at the other end of the phone asked whether she would consider a contribution, she said so.

“I’m a Democrat now,” she informed the volunteer. The volunteer (predictably) asked if she would share why she had left the GOP; my friend responded that she strongly disagreed with the party’s positions on social issues, especially abortion and homosexuality. It is not government’s job to decide whether you procreate, or who you love; the party used to understand that “limited” government meant limited to matters that are properly the province of the state.

There was a pause. The woman on the phone then asked “Don’t you think we should consider the will of god?  Shouldn’t the government have a role in ensuring that we live by what’s written in the bible?” to which my friend responded “Whose bible? Whose god?” Another pause, then the question: “are you a Christian?”  When my friend said she was not, the woman evidently had an “ah ha” moment, because she ended the conversation by saying “Oh, that explains it.” According to my friend, she might just as well have said, “Now I understand–you are not one of us.”

The conversation made it quite clear that, to this volunteer (and presumably others like her), the Republican party is no longer a political enterprise. It’s a religious movement, a party by and for Christians. Not just any Christian, either–it’s the party for what they call “bible-believing” Christians, the party of Rick Santorum and Mike Pence. If there are still those in the party who take a more traditional approach, who understand the purpose of politics to be participation in secular governance and political outreach to be the building of a bigger, more inclusive tent, they presumably hadn’t communicated that to this particular foot soldier.

The conversation simply confirmed the reality of today’s Republican party–a party consisting of what has been described as “a shrinking base of aging, ethnically monolithic, and geographically isolated voters.” Christian voters. Perhaps we could achieve more clarity in our political discourse if the GOP stopped trying to be coy, and just renamed itself the Christian Party. In its current iteration, it certainly isn’t the Republican Party that my friend and I used to support. That party disappeared a long time ago.

The volunteer on the other end of line simply confirmed its transformation.