For me this struggle is a seamless robe. Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, addressing a crowd of 250,000 people in Washington, inspired America with his vision of a future in which his children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ Today King is honoured as a hero, and the Civil Rights campaign he led is celebrated as having ended an appalling injustice. But for most of history the racist beliefs against which he fought were almost universally accepted in white societies.
The Americas were built on the premise of white racial superiority. Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492 marked the beginning of a trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves, whose forced labour built the New World. Over half a millennium later, in 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York exhibited a pygmy man from the Congo, Ota Benga, in a cage alongside an orangutan, to demonstrate that black Africans were closer to apes than they were to whites. And for much of the last century, the dogma of racism provided the justification for Empire. ‘Why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority?’ Churchill asked. ‘We are superior.’
Racist laws governed the southern United States right up until the Civil Rights campaign of the 1960s. It was illegal for blacks and whites to mix together in buses, public parks and restaurants. Schools and colleges were segregated and the standards of education in black schools reduced to a minimum. Voting requirements were rigged to disqualify the vast majority of blacks from voting. In Dallas County in Alabama in 1961, for example, less than 160 of 15,000 voting-age blacks were registered to vote. Those black people who dared to object to their inferior status risked being lynched in public displays of savagery, expressly designed to terrorise black communities into submission.
The half century since the March on Washington has seen a series of historically unprecedented struggles for equality, not only by people of colour, but by women, and by homosexuals too. As a result, cultural values of racism, sexism and homophobia, which persisted unchanged for millennia, have altered radically in many parts of the world.
In his 1869 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’ English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote ‘What is now called the nature of woman is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others… we may safely assert that the knowledge which men can acquire of women… is wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all they have to tell.’
For most of history, women were forced into silence, unable to express all they had to tell. As a result, women’s true nature remained buried beneath men’s suffocating demands for servility of body and mind. Today, in many countries women have at last succeeded in securing a host of basic rights previously denied them. In other places, however, cultural attitudes towards women have barely changed since the Middle Ages.
The cost of sexism remains staggeringly high. In poor societies, males who serve as the sole breadwinners are generally regarded as being of greater value than females. Scarce resources such as food and healthcare are reserved mainly for men and boys, with fatal consequences for women and girls. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has estimated that this anti-female bias has resulted in the premature deaths of over one hundred million girls and women worldwide.
The Middle East is home to some of the most extreme remaining examples of women’s oppression. In Iran, the denial of a woman’s humanity is explicitly written into law. As Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has highlighted, Iranian law subscribes to a woman a value half that of a man. In Saudi Arabia too laws cruelly deny women their freedom. There the male guardianship system and the limits placed on women to work, to move freely, and to interact with unrelated men, represent a system of laws and practices as abhorrent as the former apartheid system in South Africa.
The last half century since King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech has also seen a transformation in public attitudes towards homosexuality. In 1965, one year after King’s March on Washington, activists held the first gay protest at the White House. Ten gay men and lesbians picketed at the White House fence in protest against the exclusion of gay people from government jobs. Only ten gay people dared protest! In the United States at that time, identifying oneself as gay or lesbian was to invite ridicule, risk losing your job and livelihood, risk being classified as mentally ill, and risk being ostracised by your family and friends.
In the 1950s laws were passed to ban gay people from federal employment in the United States, and a concerted campaign was launched to identify and dismiss gay men from government jobs. The classification of homosexuality by the psychiatric profession as a mental disorder led to the involuntary commitment of thousands of gay men in mental institutions. Many were forced to undergo electroshock treatment in an attempt to cure them of their ‘disease’. It was under these suffocating conditions that the modern gay rights movement – including that picket of ten gay activists at the White House – was born.
In a few short decades the gay rights movement has succeeded in changing the cultures in many countries dramatically. In other parts of the world, however, the level of hostility towards lesbians and gay men is such that coming out openly as homosexual still carries the threat of imprisonment or execution. In seventy-six countries gay people face imprisonment for forming same-sex relationships. Seven countries have laws that threaten gay people with execution – Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. In Africa, the most homophobic continent on earth, many African leaders are openly proud of their homophobia. In Russia, a new law bans the promotion of “distorted notions of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships”. The Vatican continues to ‘love the sinner but hate the sin.’
We Have a Dream
In the absence of hope, people can become accustomed to the unhappiness in which they live. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, wrote, “By desensitising themselves and inhibiting their beautiful human powers, most persons seem to persuade themselves, or allow themselves to be persuaded, that it is tolerable… they can adjust with a measure of happiness. But that standard of happiness is too low, it is contemptibly too low; one is ashamed of our humanity.”
Those who struggle for equality, of race, gender or sexual orientation, restore our hope and reinvigorate our humanity. The marchers who took to the streets of Washington to hear Martin Luther King fifty years ago connect in a seamless thread, as Desmond Tutu said, with Gay Pride marchers in Moscow today, and with the women of Tahrir Square, and all the other women demanding equality in the Arab Spring. All demand that their full humanity be acknowledged and respected. All demand that the law afford them the opportunity to live their lives in way that allows them to live up to their full human potential. All demand that they be judged not by the colour of their skin, or by their gender, or by their sexual orientation, but by the content of their character.
The successes of those who have struggled for equality have brought about a revolution in our understanding of what it means to be human. For all of human history, our knowledge of human nature has been flawed and superficial. It is only in the last half century that we have begun to better discern the true nature of humankind. In overcoming oppression, every black person, every woman, and every gay man and lesbian has had to discover for themselves what it means to be fully human. And in doing so, they have allowed all of us to recognise for the first time the diversity of our shared humanity.
This unfolding revolution – this humane revolution – alone has the potential to restrain man’s violence and greed. The marchers are well on their way. A different future beckons…