Friday, January 16, 2009

Mary Frances Berry: By What Yardstick Do We Deny Gay Human Rights?

Kudos to Mary Frances Berry for a fine, moving statement today about the need for our democracy at this point in its history to address the question of human rights of gay persons head on for a change. Today’s New York Times carries an op-ed piece by Berry on this topic, entitled “Gay But Equal?” (

Berry, who was chair of the federal Commission on Civil Rights from 1993 to 2004, argues for the creation of “a new, independent human and civil rights commission” by President Barack Obama, to replace the current (and moribund) Commission on Civil Rights. As she notes, President Eisenhower created the initial federal civil rights commission in 1957 in a period of escalating tension over the human rights of African Americans—a period such as the nation is now witnessing regarding gay human rights.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles encouraged Eisenhower to create the civil rights commission because the positive opinion of the United States in the world community was being undermined by the nation’s treatment of people of color as “less-than-first-class citizens.” As I have done in posting after posting on Bilgrimage, Berry notes the many respects in which gay citizens today are treated as second-class citizens and thus as less human than other citizens of our democratic society:

Federal Social Security and tax benefits from marriage that straight people take for granted are denied to most gays in committed relationships. And because Congress has failed to enact a federal employment nondiscrimination act, bias against gays in the workplace remains a constant threat.

Gays are at risk under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And people who are only assumed to be homosexual have been subject to hate crimes. José and Romel Sucuzhañay, two brothers, were attacked in New York City last month by men yelling anti-gay and anti-Latino epithets. José Sucuzhañay died from being beaten with a bottle and a baseball bat. Yet the effort in Congress to enact a law that would increase the punishment for hate crimes against gays and lesbians is going nowhere.

As Berry insists, the central consideration at stake in this litany of rights denied is the question of human rights: when we deny human rights to a select group of human beings,while according those same rights to everyone else, we make a clear statement that the humanity of the targeted group is inferior to that of everyone else. As Berry notes, Coretta Scott King once told her, when she asked herself how Martin Luther King, Jr., would have responded to “don’t ask, don’t tell”: “What’s the yardstick by which we should decide that gay rights are less important than other human rights we care about?”

Indeed: “What’s the yardstick by which we should decide that gay rights are less important than other human rights we care about?” On what basis does anyone, anywhere ever decide to treat the human rights of any group, the humanity of any group, as less significant than those of other groups? On what basis does one ever justifiably deny the full range of human rights to any group of human beings?

Mary Frances Berry gets it. The Mormon and the Catholic church and their allies in the religious right do not get it, with their dissimulating, dishonest claim that the denial of human rights to gay citizens is about morality, not about rights.

Will the new president get it? His choice of Rick Warren as his pastor for the inaugural invocation gives me pause to wonder. I hope that Mary Frances Berry’s powerful witness reaches his conscience.