Thursday, October 9, 2008

Which Side Are You On?


By Ellen Bravo

It can happen anywhere.

Recently, I sat in a room in Milwaukee filled with people clutching Bibles and babies and spewing venom. They were visibly enraged.

Granted, there’s a lot to be angry about these days: the persistence of poverty in our community, the lack of resources for our children’s education, the number of people who can’t afford health care, the gang of hoodlums on Wall Street holding a gun to our heads, the fact that hard-working parents can be fired for staying home to care for a sick child, and the continuing number of soldiers in harm’s way.

But the object of the rage of folks surrounding me wasn’t any of these things. It was the loving, long-term, committed relationships of people who happen to love someone of the same gender.

We were at a Milwaukee school board meeting, debating a resolution to end discrimination in benefits for same-sex couples in non-bargaining unit positions – estimated to be about 1 percent of staff in those jobs. The cost isn’t very much, especially considering an earlier item on the agenda about the need to retain experienced employees. Treat people right and they’re more likely to stick around.

Opponents weren’t content with expressing disagreement with the proposal. They littered their comments with hateful remarks about real people sitting directly across the aisle or in some cases in the next chair – people who simply want to build strong families and contribute what they can to their communities and who would certainly have preferred to be spending a warm fall evening playing in the park.

Someone had convinced this group that the loving couples they targeted were responsible for the problems in our society. Somewhere along the way, making life miserable for same-sex partners had become a path to easing the misery in one's own lives.

The angry speakers in the room, apparently without exception, consider themselves to be people of faith. I doubt any of them would condone physical violence against those they railed about. But I couldn’t help thinking how much their words of hate translate every day into acts that demean, diminish and discriminate against people whose chosen (and under-paid) profession is to educate our kids.

The opponents’ words, spoken defiantly in front of their own children – girls in pinafores and boys with scrubbed faces brandishing signs – in fact create the climate that leads to more than hurtful words or daily indignities. Their speeches give permission to those who beat people and tie them to a rail to die.

Fortunately, there were a number of others in the room, teachers and parents and a sprinkling of students who’d taken time to voice their support for domestic partner benefits. Among them were three clergy, each of whom reminded the audience that whatever one’s faith, we are called upon to act justly and promote community, not divisiveness.

The proposal passed the committee by one vote. The school board member casting that vote had been wavering on which way to go. Addressing the opponents, he announced his decision: “You swayed me to vote yes.”

His position reminds us that sometimes there is no middle ground. Either we stand with those who spread hate, or we stand on the side of the most basic American values of justice, equality and fairness.

Measures like this are on the ballot in several states and are increasingly coming up in legislatures, city councils and school boards around the country.

Regardless of where it happens, we must stand together to protect justice, equality and fairness for all Americans.
Bravo is an author and activist who teaches women’s studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Copyright (C) 2008 by the Wisconsin Forum.