The Hidden Minority

A group called Sister Spirit Incorporated, which is recognized by the IRS as a charitable organization, runs a food bank in conjunction with Catholic Social Services, distributing over forty thousand (40,000) pounds of food to people in need. The organization also conduct adult literacy programs in what is undoubtedly one of the poorest regions of this country— Mississippi. In addition, they also run a camp to educate people about the effects and dangers of discrimination and intolerance. Sounds like a great group, and it is. Yet the people of Ovett, Mississippi and the surrounding communities are doing everything in their power to drive this group from the land it rightfully owns and peacefully operates. Why? Because the two founders of Sister Spirit Incorporated also happen to be lesbians.

The people of the area are under the mistaken and outdated impression that one can be taught to be a homosexual. They're actually afraid Camp Sister Spirit will teach their children how to be homosexual! Given the high rate of illiteracy in the area, perhaps their ignorance can be chalked up to not having read a newspaper in the last fifteen years. And with the poverty, perhaps they've never had the opportunity to see any of the educational programs on homosexuality on television, or even listen to the radio, where it is occasionally discussed on a talk show. And maybe books are a luxury when you can't even afford to feed your family. But with all the hoopla that's been going on in Ovett over this whole issue, surely there's been someone with some intelligent education who has had the opportunity to tell these people that one's orientation is not learned or acquired. It is something one is born with, although not necessarily genetic.

Aside from minority radical or fundamental religious groups who see it as an abomination against God, there is the majority who are not quite sure where they stand on the issue. It's not politically correct anymore to discriminate against someone based on orientation (and, in my opinion, it is never morally correct to discriminate at all). Yet there is still a lot of uncertainty and fear where homosexuality is concerned. The fear of AIDS is most certainly a factor, but statistically, the fastest growing group of AIDS victims or HIV carriers are heterosexual teenagers. So we should fear them more than the homosexual. A lot of it has to do with tradition— until recently (relatively speaking) homosexuality was considered a mental illness. It was something one kept hidden, something one's family didn't discuss. But as history has proven time and again, tradition often smacks of injustice, prejudice and discrimination, not to mention it can simply be "wrong". It was once traditional to own slaves (not all slaves were black). It was once traditional to beat your wife when she disobeyed her husband or spoke out of turn. (Unfortunately, there is still too much domestic violence going on.) It's time we threw out the tradition of not openly discussing one's orientation— in appropriate circumstances, of course. By this, I simply mean it's not appropriate to bring up another's orientation without their approval or knowledge, for instance. But none of that really addresses the issue of why people are so ambiguous about homosexuality.

Let's imagine the meeting of two individuals. Both parties place the other in several categories upon first meeting— short, skinny, long-haired, Irish, female, pretty, white, etc. These traits are not hard to miss. But there are subtle categories tailored to the belief system of each person. For example, a racist will automatically put someone of a different race in a category of "beneath me". An anti-Semite will probably put someone named Rosenblum— whether or not they are Jewish— in a category with all the other Jews he "knows". Even someone who is very open-minded and accepting will categorize— "ignorant racist" might be a category such a person would assign to someone walking around with a swastika tattooed on their cheek.

Upon subsequent meetings, these categories may be altered somewhat depending on how willing each party is to admit a mistake— however slight— was made in the initial meeting. Perhaps the initial encounter took place on a day when nothing went right for one party. The second party, who may have assigned the person to the category of "nasty", "bastard" or "bitch", may now see that such an assignation was not warranted and change it to "nasty on bad days." But since one's orientation is often not discussed, heterosexuals seem to assign everyone to the "heterosexual" category. For all practical purposes, it's no different from the present policy in the military: "I won't ask and you won't tell". Yet when a homosexual does tell, the heterosexual feels betrayed when s/he finds out and often reacts with anger and/or scorn.

Why? Because the homosexual no longer fits into the neat little category where he was placed by the heterosexual. And if s/he doesn't fit, who else doesn't fit? Doubt is cast on one's whole belief structure and ability to judge "correctly". Indeed, doubt is even cast on one's own orientation, especially if one is exceptionally close to the "newly-discovered" homosexual. One begins to wonder if the platonic hugs were actually attempts at a seduction. Yet that very idea is ludicrous. A lesbian would no more ask out a "straight" woman that a "straight" man would ask out a lesbian (assuming of course they were looking to start an intimate relationship.) It would appear the solution to the problem of "hidden homosexuality" would be to stop categorizing people altogether. But is this really feasible? I think not.

We need categories. It's difficult to act when you don't use them. If I absolutely can't stand snakes and I meet someone who is a "snakeaphile", chances are I won't pursue the relationship past the casual stage. If I'm a smoker and I meet someone with asthma, chances are I won't be seeing too much of that person since my cigarette smoke would aggravate the asthma. We need categories when the need arises to make snap decisions. If you're aware that a baby sitter has a good reputation with your friends, you're more apt to call him/her than a stranger if a sudden need arises. Similarly, if you're not into racism and bigotry, chances are you won't want to attend a rally with anyone who believes one race is superior over all others. Categorizing others is based in part on intuition. How many times have you had a first impression that someone was going to be a best friend or a worst enemy? We're already too far removed from our intuition to deny it even this small part in our lives.

The solution lies in only categorizing as much as is necessary for the purpose at hand. And then, if possible, leave behind those categories the next time you meet. If that's too difficult, allow the categories to shift as necessary. I have a good friend in someone I once scorned because of rumors I heard about her. Once I actually met her, I allowed my preconceived ideas to change as our relationship developed. I allowed fact to replace what had been my own personal suppositions. Herein lies the key to eliminating this irrational fear of homosexuals. If a homophobic person would allow him- or herself to get to know a lesbian or a gay man, s/he would discover that the diversity among homosexuals is not all that different from the diversity among heterosexuals. There are those who want happy, monogamous relationships and those who choose to remain single. There are those who feel drawn to serve God in some sort of clerical or religious capacity or those who want to serve their country in the military. There are those who want to be doctors and those who choose the cut-throat world of business. The hopes and dreams of homosexuals are the hopes and dreams of all human beings— to live a fulfilling and rewarding life in peace and reasonable comfort, free of persecution, free to worship God as one chooses, free to speak one's mind without fear of retribution, etc.

I can't help but be struck by the irony of this whole situation in Ovett, Mississippi— the people opposed to Camp Sister Spirit are using the freedoms guaranteed by this country's Constitution to deny those very same rights to others. That is not what the Constitution was written for. That is not what so many men and women have died defending. If you choose to do nothing, so be it. But when the discrimination turns to you (which is ever more likely under the current Bush Administration's policies of destroying civil rights) because you speak with an accent or don't worship God the same way or have some sort of mental or physical challenge, remember your choice.

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