Friday, June 24, 2011

Tearing Down Prejudice & Hatred Until We Are All Equal

Tonight I watched the Julia Roberts movie Mona Lisa Smile for the first time. Roberts stars as an art history professor at a conservative New England women's college in the 1950's. She quickly stirs the pot, challenging what 1950's society expects of "wholesome young women." Many, if not most women were expected to fill the role of good, obedient wives for their husbands, producing babies and making sure dinner was on the table by 5 o'clock. Self-ambition as far as careers go often took a back seat to expected obligations. But then things started to change as they irrevocably do with time, and now we know - hopefully - that women don't have to confine their ambitions because society expects them to. I say hopefully because there are still plenty of people who think, even in North America, that women should stay away from certain "men-only" roles and acquiesce to what men tell them to do.

In many many parts of the world it is more overtly shocking. Women are raped, beaten, and killed for challenging societal expectations (in marriage, in the workplace, in religious institutions, etc) Acid is thrown onto girl's faces as they walk down the street because they simply seek to go to school. Just this past week, a University of British Columbia graduate was visiting her Bangladeshi home, when her husband gouged out her eyes, leaving her blind, presumably because he didn't want her to be furthering her education. I write these things not to be grotesque, but because they still happen and we - I - must use my voice whenever I can to stand up and say, "Not in my world!" Much progress has been made in some ways, but there is a long way to go.

As progress was made with women, homosexuals weren't far behind in being considered the new pariah. Gay men weren't people who desired loving meaningful relationships, as much as they were promiscuous perverts who shouldn't be trusted around young boys. More beatings, lynchings, and suicides ensued because there was no acceptable place for them in society. When AIDS became an epidemic in the 1980's, many called it God's cure for homosexuals. As it was with women, much progress has been made. Here in Canada same-sex couples who are in love can be legally married, and increasingly these rights are being given in several states south of the border. However, many many people in power are still adamant that gays and lesbians should not have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Just last year, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, now a contender for the presidency of the United States of America, vetoed a bill that would allow same-sex partners to make end-of-life decisions. In other words, imagine having the love of your life that you've been with for 30 years die, and then being told you have no say where they should be buried. How low can you go? Really, how low? (Not coincidentally, as I sit here writing this article at 1:40 in the morning, Elton John's song American Triangle has just started playing on my iTunes playlist. It chronicles the savage beating of openly gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998. Matthew was taken by two young men to a rural area, and beaten and tortured before being tied to a fence. He died 5 days later in hospital at the age of 21.) That was 13 years ago, not a long period of time. How about more recently? Most likely you've heard of the multiple examples of gay teens committing suicide because they felt there was no other option for them. Tyler Clementi (pictured) was an eighteen-year-old student in New Jersey who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010. This occurred after his sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room was video streamed over the Internet without Clementi's knowledge. Hell, even teenagers who are suspected of being gay are committing suicide. Heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking.

To conclude, I have a couple points. As I've stated above, there has been a lot of progress in regards to the evolution of how marginalized members of society such as women and homosexuals are treated. But there is a long way to go.

My second point, or question, is this: Who's next? Who will we feel threatened by next because of our ignorance and in turn who will we marginalize or view as "less than us." Women? Gays? Black people? Aboriginals? Believe me, I know enough about ignorance. When I was a 15 year old back in small southwestern Ontario, I was writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper, righteously (or so I thought) fighting the tide toward gay marriage, because of what I had been taught and because of what I had interpreted from a handful of verses in my religious tome. And then my very best friend sat me down at the end of high school and confided in me that he was a gay man. It's amazing how your ideologies and ignorance can be stripped away from you when you are faced with flesh and blood reality. I am grateful that my blinders were ripped off.

Finally, tonight as I listen to the brilliant Elton John in the early hours of a summers morning, I resolutely say, "Stand Up! May we never turn a blind eye to people around us who are being marginalized or prejudiced against, and may we help our fellow humankind to break through barriers placed on them by time, popular opinion, or ignorance. We can't sit back and wait for others in more prominent positions to do the job for us; we have a mighty voice. Stand up!

Our humanity demands nothing less from us.

Mark Andrew Alward