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A Moral Obligation

By Adam S. Hickey

It has not been a good year for gay rights.

The vicious murder of Matthew Shephard in Wyoming last fall captured national attention and highlighted the nationwide trend of increased violence against gays and lesbians. On April 6, the Associated Press reported that the number of suspected anti-gay murders had more than doubled over the last year, as did the number of victims of anti-gay violence who required hospitalization. The use of weapons such as guns, knives, clubs, and bats in those attacks rose by double-digit percentages. Meanwhile, the "homosexual panic" defense--"He came on to me, I lost my mind"--continues to prove successful in winning acquittals and reduced convictions in such cases.

These acts of violence are contemporaneous with a wave of anti-gay comments voiced last summer by the highest ranking members of Congress, especially Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). A coalition of Christian groups simultaneously launched a print-media campaign (to be followed up by television ads later this spring) arguing that homosexuals are deceived and diseased persons who threaten the stability of the nation. Cloaked in the rhetoric of love and healing, this campaign, waged by the likes of presidential aspirant Gary Bauer, uses religion as a tool of political ambition. Among its many targets are state education initiatives aimed at teaching elementary school children that hate and violence against gays are wrong.

It is in this context that we greet Gaypril, Harvard's gay pride month. Harvard's relatively liberal atmosphere has the tendency to lull gay men and lesbians (and other minorities) into a false sense of security, and as a result, our pride month, like all elements of activism, is relatively muted here. At the same time, if last night's debate over the ROTC is any indication, many will see provocative posters or hear of gay pride events and shake their heads, annoyed at having the homosexual agenda foisted on them by an ultra-liberal elite.

"Why is it that gays need to have pride?" one conservative peer once asked me. "I'm not proud to be straight," she observed. Meanwhile, many of my gay friends agree: sexuality is no big deal. There's no reason to politicize it, to make a big deal of it. Enough progress has been made. A good number of gays (myself included) find themselves embarrassed by the camp and flame of gay culture and wish to disavow it.

The truth is however, that we must "make a big deal out of it," because we in the gay community at Harvard are as affected by homophobia in Wyoming as gays and lesbians there.

We are morally obligated to come out of the closet (when we can), to assert vocally our sexuality and to demand the equal rights and public recognition (through marriage and military service) that we are entitled to as citizens. We have the opportunity to live as quiet homosexuals only because more "noisy" queers have pushed the left farther left and created room for us in the center.

Activists who have gone before us, at moments like Stonewall in 1969, or in groups like ACT UP in the '80s, have left on us--the political, economic and intellectual elite--the burden of future progress. We shirk that burden if we choose to live anonymously or apathetically. Yet it is not we who will suffer but those who are younger, less educated, less wealthy--those who are not inoculated from stigma and violence with a Harvard diploma.

This is not to say that there are not very valid, understandable reasons for being closeted. Coming out is a long and difficult process, and no one should feel pressured to do so. Moreover, it is true to say that sexuality is not the be-all and end-all of personality, but more often that not, this is used as an excuse for comfortable invisibility.

Not wanting to make a big deal is very often just a mask for not being willing to put oneself and one's privilege on the line for the good of a larger community. But it is that same sacrifice by others that allows us to make the choice of silence. What we do in our bedrooms is private only because others made what they did public, and it is from their sacrifices that our moral obligation arises.

In 1986, following the Supreme Court's landmark anti-gay ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, Phillip Bockman wrote in the New York Native, "What you can do--alone? The answer is obvious. You're not alone, and you can't afford to try to be. That closet door--never very secure as protection--is even more dangerous now. You must come out, for own sake and for the sake of all of us."

Now, as much as ever, his warning rings true. As long as gays cannot serve in the military or marry; as long as they can be fired for their identity; as long as it is socially acceptable to call gays "diseased persons" and to attack them, the "love that dare not speak its name" must dare to do so--even at Harvard, whose walls protect us. If it does not, we will lose what we have gained and perish in comfortable, apathetic, fearful silence.

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