Last night, I was honored to give the brief keynote at IUPUI’s “Lavender” Graduation–a celebration of LGBT students who have earned diplomas and advanced degrees, and are graduating this May. This is what I told them.
Graduations are wonderful times—I know that each of you is breathing a sigh of relief that you finally got through it all. You are savoring the thought of no more papers, no more juggling classes with work and family, no more putting up with picky professors…So I do want to encourage you to enjoy this moment. Have a drink—or three. Congratulate yourselves. You deserve it.
Then tomorrow, I expect you all to get up and begin a different “assignment”—one that will probably last for the rest of your life. Starting tomorrow, I want each and every one of you to be an activist for social justice.
Before you roll your eyes, let me describe what I mean by social justice, and what being an “activist” requires. I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t mean taking up arms in a revolution, or taking to the streets in protest—although you might end up doing those things, they certainly aren’t required by my definition.
So—first things first. Why should you care about some expansive concept called “social justice”? Why not limit your activism—assuming you bother to engage in it at all—to those causes that focus upon advancing rights for LGBT folks—to the causes that will benefit you most directly?
I’ll tell you why.
We live in a society with a lot of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respect those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.
I know it’s hard for the Micah Clarks and Ted Cruz’s of this world to understand, but when the government refuses to make everyone live by their particular interpretation of their particular holy book, that’s not an attack on them. It’s not a War on Christianity. It is recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right they claim for themselves.
Ironically, a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is the only system that can really safeguard anyone’s religious liberty. Genuine equality is only possible in a “live and let live” system—in an open and tolerant society.
It is recognition of that fact that has brought many different kinds of Americans into many different civil rights battles: I’m Jewish and a woman, but in my own lifetime, I haven’t limited my participation to efforts to combat sexism and anti-Semitism. I’ve worked for racial justice, for LGBT rights, against efforts to marginalize immigrants—not because I’m some sort of noble person, but because I’m not. I’m actually very selfish, and I understand that my own rights absolutely depend upon equal rights for other people.
If everyone doesn’t have rights, they aren’t rights—they’re privileges that government can bestow or withdraw. In such a society, no one’s rights are safe.
So that’s the WHY. What about the HOW?
I said you don’t have to take to the streets to be an activist. What do you have to do? Let me just share a few examples of effective activism:
I wrote a regular column for the Indiana Word for some 25 years. In one of those columns, written just 16 years ago, I shared the story of a wedding attended by my youngest son. It was a lovely affair—formal, at an expensive Chicago hotel, conducted with meticulous attention to detail. The program book included a message from the bride and groom, reciting how enthusiastic they were to enter into wedded life, how sure they were that matrimony was the right choice for them. In fact, they said, there was only one hesitation, one fact that gave rise to a certain reluctance to marry: the fact that others were legally prevented from doing likewise. It seemed unfair that legal marriage was available to them, a man and a woman, and not available to others merely because they were of the same gender. The message concluded with a request that those present, who had shared the happy day with this particular couple, work toward a time “when everyone can enter into the institution of marriage and have their union recognized by society and the state.”
In that column, I speculated about what would happen to the pervasive bigotry against gays and lesbians if hundreds, then thousands, of heterosexuals added similar paragraphs to their wedding programs. I said it might change the world.
As we now know, actions like those and many others did “change the world.” Probably the most significant activism—the most consequential–was the courage of thousands of LGBT people who refused to live dishonestly and who “came out”–often with the support of their families and allies, but sometimes in the face of enormous hostility. Coming out was activism, and it was enormously effective.
Last year, marriage equality became the law of the land, and survey research tells us that solid majorities of Americans now endorse same-sex marriage and support the extension of full civil rights protections to the gay community.
Of course, we live in Indiana, where gays do not yet have civil rights protections. This state has a long way to go before LGBT folks achieve full civic equality . So look around, and you’ll see plenty of examples of social activism and plenty of opportunities to get involved.
Remember, in the wake of the passage of RFRA, the allies who started an organization and sold those now ubiquitous stickers that say “This business serves everyone”? What a great message. Putting that sticker on the door of your establishment –or encouraging a friend or neighbor to do so—is activism.
And what about the “Pence must go” signs you see everywhere? (I have one in my front yard—and so do three of my neighbors.) That doesn’t take much effort, but it’s activism that communicates to passersby that “here’s an Indiana citizen who doesn’t endorse bigotry.”
Speaking of time, the women involved in Periods for Pence are taking time to call the Governor’s office to remind him that he lacks the moral and constitutional authority to make women’s reproductive choices for them.
The bottom line is that activism can be expressed in many different ways. As we gather here, there are LGBT Republicans working to change the GOP state platform; there are lobbyists for Indiana Equality and Freedom Indiana and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce urging lawmakers to add four words and a comma to the state civil rights law, there are opinionated professors like me writing snarky blogs and columns…
Here’s the “take away.” A better world is a world where different people with different beliefs, living different kinds of lives, can co-exist without privileging some at the expense of others. That world won’t appear by accident. We all have to do our part to bring it into existence. We all have to be activists.
So celebrate tonight, and tomorrow, take your credentials and your accomplishments out into the world and use them to make that world a kinder, gentler, just-er place.
We old folks will be watching! And I personally will be cheering you on!