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May 29, 2012

It's refreshing to hear our president dismiss prejudice


Daily Star

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Race and sexual identity both sponsor problems of social discomfort. Abstractly, such traits are fixed, but in life they are roads on the map of our cultural values, which change.

Girls are discriminated against around much of the world. Blacks still find roadblocks where others do not. Homosexuals often need to walk in shoes that do not fit. People still make intolerant distinctions.

Now, both the president and the vice president have declared themselves comfortable with the idea that marriage is a civil right, available to all. In other words, gay people can marry each other. That was kind of new and outside the usual realm of moderate safety. I was a bit surprised, but pleased at such refreshing candor.

Before this, Obama made his mark by proving himself comfortable in his own skin. He did it in a famous speech in front of a Democratic National Convention in 2004. A few years later, he sought the nomination, got it and was elected. As his victory became clear, I cried. Another burden was being lifted.

That was a huge milestone. When my son was a baby, my wife stayed home with him while I got on a bus to Washington, D.C., to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the Lincoln Memorial. Just a few years before that I had been in Norfolk, Va., to visit a Navy buddy and was shocked at confronting "Colored" drinking fountains, "White Only," etc.

A son in one family of old friends was, as my father whispered in my adult ear one day, "a homosexual," literally unspeakable.

Race and sexual identity have been strong dividing lines that can separate us from each other, often awkwardly. These are distinctions subject to manufactured attitudes. Sometimes a negative attitude _ homophobia, for example _ is chosen to disguise a worrisome and unwelcome trait instead of coming out.

The late 18-year-old Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, had just left home, a big step toward independence and being a part of a new social order.

His roommate, Dharun Ravi, has just been sentenced to a mere month in jail, community service and probation for spying and publicly exposing Clementi's private behavior: Sexual behavior "with a dude."

Ravi essentially killed his roommate's reputation. Days later, after being outed on the campus as homosexual, Clementi leaped to his death in shame.

Claiming to know the difference between good and evil is playing God, and leads to finger-pointing. Where tolerance is pushed aside by judgmental criticism or rejection, self-acceptance is threatened within the target group.

It allows bullying to go unchallenged. Though those with negative reactions may be only a small minority, the majority uncertainty too easily leads to majority silence.

It is not unusual for adolescent boys to commit suicide at the doorstep of an unwelcome gender-bending realization of selfhood. So much for the morality of the self-righteous for whom gay behavior crosses a line into sinful and willful choice.

The maintenance of lines drawn into the social sand is subjective, not absolute. These distinctions are not more meaningful than warnings about stepping on a sidewalk crack, lest you break your mother's back.

We no longer hear about black people "passing" for white. Interracial marriage is no longer unusual. Being gay is not so widely seen as a sinful choice. Tolerance is freeing and essential to freedom.

That is why it is so refreshing to hear our first black president and his vice president dismiss such lines of prejudice. Lines separate people and support castigation in destructive ways.

People need respect. They need a claim on dignity. A therapist I know was asked at a parents' meeting about what constitutes child abuse. The answer was "Anything that hurts the dignity of a child."

Actually, that is the case for all of us, at any age. Our well-being is not just found in fairness, or justice, but in nurturing the integrity of our personhood.

William Masters can be reached at wmasters@thedailystar.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.