Thursday, June 18, 2009

Three-Fifths of All Persons: An Examination of the Effects of Dehumanization

In the wake of the ruling by the California Supreme Court upholding the choice of voters in proposition 8 to amend the state constitution by removing from gay citizens the right to marriage, I asked myself on this blog, “I wonder what it feels like to be told that one is three fifths of all other persons?” When I asked that question on May 28, I noted that, at the time, I felt too raw to write about it.

I still feel raw, but I want to give a try to answering that question now. I’m asking the three-fifths question in light of the conclusion of the California Supreme Court that denying gay persons the right to marry represents only a “narrow” and “limited” exception to the full range of human rights that all other citizens enjoy. It strikes me that this conclusion is very similar to the “three-fifths” arrangement of article 1, section 2, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution.

When the Constitution was ratified, there was controversy about how to apportion representation in states that held some citizens in bondage. As a compromise, a decision was made to apportion representation and tax burdens in slave states by counting slaves (which is to say, in most circumstances at the time, African Americans) as three-fifths of a person.

What does it do to human beings, I wonder, to be told that one is three-fifths of all other persons? That one’s humanity counts for something (particularly when it comes to society’s willingness to take the gifts one brings and use them for its own benefit), but that it counts for something less that that of other human beings?

What does it do to the psyches and souls of a group of human beings to be told that their humanity is less than that of other folks? That the group should be content with “narrow” and “limited” exceptions to the full range of human rights others enjoy, simply because of who one is? That the majority should have the right to pick and choose among the human rights it takes for granted, as it selects rights to accord you and your group, offering you some but not all of the rights the majority takes for granted?

This question remains pertinent. Yesterday, the president signed a memorandum granting a limited number of gay citizens rights that other citizens freely enjoy without question or fanfare. But even that action recognizing the rights of same-sex partners of federal employees made limited exceptions (and they are hardly narrow ones) to the rights those citizens could enjoy under the memorandum.

Though same-sex partners of federal employees can now enjoy some partner benefits, they will continue to be excluded from others that all heterosexual employees of the federal government take for granted. These include healthcare benefits.

As an editorial about this in today’s New York Times notes, it is “deeply unfair” to provide full benefits to one group of workers while denying them to another (on the basis of innate characteristics that have nothing to do with job performance). As the editorial states, this is tantamount to paying members of a stigmatized group less than their peers for the same work. The editorial concludes that Mr. Obama still has work to do in this and other areas to keep his promise of equal rights for gay Americans.

The exclusion of a group of citizens from the same rights others enjoy, without any rationale for that exclusion other than an innate difference that should make no difference when rights are allocated, affects not only individuals but families. I’ve been following an interesting discussion about this at the America blog lately. This is a discussion about the gay marriage debate in the American Catholic context.

Some of those contributing to the discussion have made an interesting point. This is that what we conclude about the morality of gay marriage has legal (and economic and social) implications for heterosexually-headed families with gay members as well as for gay families. And some of those implications demand attention from the standpoint of Catholic morality: in opposing gay marriage, Catholic pastoral leaders may also be undercutting heterosexually headed families that have gay members, as well as gay families. In doing this, Catholic pastoral leaders may be contradicting their own teaching about the economic and social justice that families deserve.

For instance, when a heterosexual couple decide to give guardianship of their children to a gay family member who is in a same-sex marriage, should the straight couple die, the children of that heterosexual couple will suffer all the disadvantages of the same-sex couple, as long as the marital unions of gay couples struggle with the “narrow” and “limited” exceptions that go along with denial of the right to marry.

No one has noted the following in the America discussion, but I think that one could also note that denial of marriage to gay couples—with all the other “narrow” and “limited” exceptions that flow from that denial, including exclusion from partner healthcare benefits—also affects large numbers of heterosexual elderly Americans. Gay couples often end up taking care of aging parents and other aging family members. We’re sometimes expected to do so. Studies suggest that an increasing percentage of elderly Americans are now being cared for by their adult children, and many of those children are gay—and some of them live in partnered relationships.

When our lives are made difficult due to prejudice and injustice, and when we are caring for aging parents or aging relatives, those family members suffer along with us. Steve’s and my experience of caring for my mother up to the time of her death in 2001 became a horror story due to legally permitted, legally protected prejudice on the part of the Arkansas judge who oversaw my guardianship of my mother.

This is a story that, I have reason to think, is replicated in many places, but which does not receive sufficient attention. I have been completely unable to get media attention for this story, insofar as Steve and I have lived it. It's apparently just not noteworthy.

Yet this story is part and parcel of the story of how “narrow” and “limited” exceptions to human rights targeting a particular minority also inevitably target, and trouble the lives of, other citizens who are not even in the targeted minority. What we permit to be done to gay citizens and gay couples affects many more citizens than gay ones.

What happened yesterday, with the presidential memo, puts the lie to the claim of some opponents of gay marriage (and of many Catholic bishops)* that gay civil unions are equal to straight marriages, and that gay couples in civil unions enjoy all the rights and privileges of heterosexual couples in “traditional” marriages). That’s just not the case. Gay citizens continue to experience three-fifths status in manifold ways in our society, and the erection of a separate category of marriage for gay citizens, with “narrow” and “limited” exceptions to the rights those who are legally married enjoy, compounds and does not solve this problem.

So, to return to my initial question, what is it like to be told by one’s fellow citizens that one is three-fifths of a person? What is it like to be told this by an administration one has elected, which has promised to level the playing field and combat discrimination, but is not doing so? What is it like to be told this by churches whose statewide meetings vote in huge majorities against welcoming you to their churches, even when those churches display signs saying that they have open hearts, open minds, and open doors?

What’s it like to be told that one is three-fifths of a person by a state supreme court which informs you that the rights from which you are excluded for no rational or defensible reason are merely “narrow” and “limited” exceptions? What’s it like to be told by court authorities as you and your partner of many years care for an aging mother suffering from dementia that you are not a fit caregiver, and that a court-appointed ad litem attorney needs to make visits to your home to supervise the quality of care you are providing—even when all of your mother’s siblings, your father’s siblings and their spouses, and your own siblings have written to tell the court that you are providing care of the highest quality for a family member they love?

What's it like to deal with such demeaning nonsense when you're working around the clock to care for an aging loved one who has to be supervised every moment, since she has no idea where she is or who she is? What’s it like to go through life being told in every way possible that you are three-fifths of all other persons, and should just get used to it?

As I think about that question, I think of what I have learned in a lifetime of reading African-American writers, who struggled with the Constitution’s legal definition (long upheld by popular consensus) of African Americans as three fifths of all other persons. I think of all I have learned from James Baldwin and Ralph Ellision, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Jean Toomer, James Cone, Cornell West, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Eldridge Cleaver, Langston Hughes, and countless other writers.

I think also of what I’ve learned from Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, Phyllis Wheatley, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lorraine Hansberry, Marian Wright Edelman, and many other courageous, deep-souled women of color.

Here’s what I hear gifted black artists and talented black writers saying over the course of American history, about the struggle of African Americans to cope with society’s definition of one group of citizens as three-fifths of all other citizens, because of the color of that group’s complexion:

Only a: struggle, assert yourself, live with dignity, work hard, but in the end, you will find yourself only a fill-in-the-blank.

One of the most persistent effects of defining the humanity of one group as three-fifths of the humanity of all other groups is that the group so defined finds itself constantly tagged and dismissed as “only a.” Only a faggot, when all is said and done. What else do you expect from those people? That's how they are. That's how they behave.

As long as social groups are permitted to tag some groups in this way—permitted to do so by legal codes, by government leaders, by preachers expounding the bible from pulpits, by educational systems that disseminate misinformation, by media that invent texts and images to distort the real humanity of a stigmatized group—those who are members of the demeaned group will find themselves unable to move beyond the “only a” tag. No matter what they do. No matter who they are. No matter how hard they work or with what dignity they live.

The only thing that matters in the end: as I listen to gifted black artists and talented black writers describing the African-American experience, I hear a persistent refrain about how all that society sees, all that matters in the end, is that single stigmatizing characteristic society has chosen to see as the ultimate thing to recognize about the group.

They don’t see me. They don’t see inside me. They see only what they have chosen to see, that single external characteristic to which they attach ultimate significance, and on the basis of which they make other invidious assumptions about what’s inside.

All that matters in the end is that I am gay. Once you have that key, you have the key to my entire soul, to my nature, to my worth as a human being. You don't need to look further.

Living split: the experience of being classified as “only a” whose definition hinges solely on one unchangeable fact about oneself, a fact irrelevant to one’s human worth, splits people. African American writers tell stories of the horrific struggle of a group of people to live with that split.

What do you do, when you find yourself defined as “only a” whose skin color is all that matters in the end? Do you fight? If so, how does one live decently while fighting constantly, particularly when almost everything in the legal and social structures of the society in which one is conducting that fight conduces to one’s disempowerment? How does one fight constantly when the fight itself will be used to confirm the stereotype that one is only a?

But how does one live with dignity and self-respect when one does not fight? Where does one go to find people and places that do not reduce one’s human nature to “only a”? Should one look for someplace that appears to be more humane where one does not have to fight continuously, where one can fulfill one’s multifaceted humanity that is about so much more than that one characteristic?

Social groups that turn one group of people into three-fifths of a person on the basis of differences that ought not to matter as we allocate human worth and human rights, produce horrible quandaries for those defined as less human than everyone else. Those quandaries run through the entire lives of members of that group, and through all that they do. These quandaries sometimes split the psyches and souls of those defined as less human than others. They hamper the ability of the group to contribute to the rest of society, even when the stigmatized group clearly has much to offer.

And these mechanisms continue today in American society, not merely in social attitudes, but in social institutions—in the workplace, the legal system, the government, our churches, and so on. And they will continue as long as they have legal sanction, and those charged to lead the country and safeguard its democratic structures do not address the institutional legitimation of such behavior.

* It should also be noted that, despite attempts of some apologists for behavior of the current leaders of the Catholic church in the gay marriage debate today, Catholic pastoral leaders have not supported or promoted civil unions anyplace in the world. The typical, unvarying stance of Catholic pastoral leaders to any and all civil rights for gay citizens is to oppose those rights whenever and wherever possible. Faced with a growing societal consensus in favor of gay marriage in some areas of the world, some bishops are now willing to entertain the option of civil unions. Given the history of most bishops and the Vatican in opposing all gay rights relentlessly, one has to wonder about the sincerity of this sudden willingness to support gay civil unions.