Our children are watching

The journey toward equality for blacks in America has been long and harrowing, a struggle against entrenched bigotry and racial discrimination.

Though the Civil War ended in 1865 and slavery was declared illegal throughout the union, it wasn't until 1954 that the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision that codified the racist ruse known as separate but equal, and by extension Jim Crow, was finally repudiated.

To change America's racial attitudes has taken more than a century of litigation, protests and marches, to include the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Of course, intolerance and stereotyping have continued. We are not yet living in a post-racial America.

Regarding tolerance for others, change comes hard. We saw how hard during the last Republican debate when a gay soldier, speaking from Iraq, appeared on a closed circuit screen. Immediately there were boos throughout the audience as he spoke. What was most chilling was that the candidates standing on the stage were silent. Not one of them protested the derogatory reaction by the audience to a gay uniformed soldier serving in a theater of war. It was a craven moment, most especially for the candidates who put politics before principle.

As a people, our intent has always been either to expand or to defend the inalienable rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — of our citizens, to include minorities.

But there have been periods in our history when we have truncated the rights of minorities instead of protecting them. Regarding our gay and lesbian minorities (LGBT), this is such a time. States are using referenda to pass constitutional amendments that validate and affirm bigotry, a bigotry that mirrors Jim Crow, a bigotry that is blatantly unconstitutional, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Next May, the voters of North Carolina will vote on a state constitutional amendment stating that marriage, with all attendant rights, is legal only between a man and a woman, and bars any extension of marriage rights to gay or lesbian couples. Should it pass, North Carolina will join 29 other states that have passed amendments declaring same-sex marriage illegal (Oregon already has such an amendment).

How can we as a nation defend using the ballot to deprive any minority of their civil right to the pursuit of happiness, however they might define it? How can we knowingly bend the arc of history toward injustice and not justice? Would we vote to alter the First Amendment to conform to a particular group's definition of acceptable speech? And would we alter the 14th Amendment to conform to a group's literal interpretation of scripture, a scripture that buttresses seemingly reflexive prejudices? That is exactly what we are doing.

Our children are, of course, watching. And listening. Anti-gay bigotry is learned from the surrounding culture, from our national dialogue. As is racism. Our young people take their cues from parents, school officials and teachers who are silent in the face of anti-gay bullying. They listen intently when conservative Christian groups demand that schools avoid any reference to homosexuality or same-sex marriage as normal or positive, while warning educators of the "homosexual agenda" while insisting that gays are recruiting our children into an "unhealthy lifestyle."

Students soon learn the language and behavior of bigotry, of exclusion, and single out students they suspect of being gay based on fraudulent stereotypes, no matter the students' actual sexual orientation. The epithets "fag," "faggot," "homo," and "queer" are reprehensibly used, as is physical intimidation.

Adolescents are profoundly vulnerable to peer rejection and cruelty, overt or covert. They are on a journey of identity, a rite of passage, and the only constant is change — physical and psychological. To abuse and berate them for perceived differences is to deeply wound. The results can be tragic. Imagine the sense of desperation that must be felt, the abuse and torment endured, for a young person to take his or her own life. But it is happening, with alarming regularity. And the refrain, "It gets better," is certainly no anodyne; for most adolescents, now is their only reality.

Our children are watching and listening and what they see and hear represents a tyranny of the majority and a glaring injustice that should be righted.

Isn't it a basic human right to choose that individual, of whatever sex, with whom to make our journey through life? Can we not see that the tyranny of the majority over a minority will always be antithetical to who we are as a people and to our stated principles as a nation? Hopefully, the arc of history will bend toward justice. Is this not a moral imperative?

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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