The content of their character

On Aug. 28, 1963, an oppressively warm summer day in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and, to an audience of some 200,000, delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. It was an historic moment, one that still frames the civil rights movement, a call to America to fulfill its commitment to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"I have a dream," said King, in his signature cadence, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Those words were incandescent, resonant and ever unforgettable.

It is self-evident that the template of the civil rights movement, tempered during the struggle against the insidious laws of Jim Crow, is applicable to any group denied equal protection under the law.

The fact is that, while our nation continues to struggle with matters of race, there is a minority group in America that is still subjected to de facto discrimination and, in effect, Jim Crow laws: that would be our gay population.

While the history of gays, meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, in our country is distinctly different from that of African-Americans, to be sure, the damage done to this community is no less grievous for they too have been deprived of full and equal protection under the law and continue to suffer from de jure segregation and discrimination.

A relevant example of a Jim Crow law as applied to gays is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Since 1993, gay service members have been required to cloak themselves in a closet of lies, fearful that if their true sexual orientation were known they would be court-martialed from the service. Their dismissal would not be for anything they had done, but for who they are. It's a blatant and unconscionable violation of their civil rights.

The lame rationale still proffered is that asking our troops to serve with gays would damage the cohesion of combat units. Segregationists used that same argument in 1948, when President Harry S. Truman integrated the armed services by Executive Order 9981. Members of Congress and the military then predicted dire outcomes citing unit cohesion and a breakdown in discipline. Their arguments were specious and beside the point. It was, simply, the right thing to do. Delaying the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell seems almost malevolent. The law is as ludicrous as suggesting that black troops not tell if asked if they are black.

The surveys the Pentagon is currently conducting are also absurd. Soldiers are asked if they would be uncomfortable showering with gay troops. What would the response have been to that same question regarding showering with blacks in 1948 had Truman felt a survey was necessary? It's beside the point. The order of the day should be, treat all in uniform as equals. Salute and move on. Bigotry has no place in the service or in America.

To our collective shame, the Defense of Marriage Act, another Jim Crow law, was ratified in both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 (to his shame). Though clearly unconstitutional, a violation of due process and equal protection under the law, DOMA defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Shouldn't every individual be able to select his or her life partner, with all attendant rights, without the intrusion of the federal government? How is DOMA not an egregious violation of gay people's civil rights? How is it any less outrageous than those anachronistic laws regarding miscegenation? From 1913 until 1948, 30 out of 48 states enforced anti-miscegenation laws.

A more recent example of Jim Crow can be found in the California passage of a constitutional amendment known as Proposition 8. It was passed by ballot in November 2008, after the state legislature legalized same-sex marriage. The passage of Proposition 8 (Oregon passed a similar amendment in 2004) surely follows in the footsteps of the disgraceful Plessy v. Ferguson (1896-1954) ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which instituted "separate but equal" and Jim Crow as the law of the land. It was a contemptible ruling, but no less contemptible than Proposition 8.

Race and the rights of gays continue to haunt us as a nation. We cannot seem to free ourselves of the abiding prejudices that deprive minorities of full and equal protection under the law. Let us resolve, as a nation, that we will judge one another by the content of our character and not the color of our skin or our sexual orientation, and acknowledge, with all of our hearts, that we all have a dream.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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