22 January 2009

A New Day is Indeed Dawning in this Country

Newly-elected President Obama has issued directives to shut down Guantanamo within a year. I have to admit that for nearly a decade, I have not felt at all proud to be an American. Guantanamo was a large part of that reason. I know that I wasn't personally responsible for what was going on in the government and had not cast my votes in the direction to set that tone in our country. Indeed I cast as many votes in the opposite direction at every opportunity. I regularly contacted the wonderful senators and legislators in my part of this state (Washington) to inform them of my views, only to find that they already shared them. We were all on the side of human rights, yet still our nation moved towards the shameful actions that were taken in Guantanamo and elsewhere, secreted behind closed prison doors, away from reach of the voting public, cut off from the balancing powers of a government operating under the guidance of its own Constitution.

I supported the actions of Amnesty International and any other organization that called for the closure of these secret prisons, and while things toned down slightly in this area, still our nation continued to drift away from our longheld ideals and support of human rights. It felt to me as though many of us (myself included) had given up hope and were just biding our time until it was over, one way or another.

Ever since the Presidential elections of 2000, I have been, in turn, shocked, confused, appalled, and horrified at what our nation was coming to signify in the world. No, the United States has not always been loved by everyone around the world. We, as a people, have on occasion showed our ugly side as unruly guests in other people's countries. We have definitely showed our self-seeking side as the chief overconsumers of the world's resources. But never in nearly fifty years of my life have I been so saddened by the actions of our government, never been utterly embarrassed to call myself an American. That is no longer true.

I sit here writing this blog with tears streaming down my face because it has only been since November 4, 2008, that I have become proud of my country once again. I didn't realize how deeply the shame of this nation's actions had settled inside of my heart until now as I release those feelings. Yes, I've been angry. I've taken action where my voice and my vote could make a difference. But the shame of Guantanamo and the torture that was done with the consent of the United States of America was beyond reconciling in my mind.

But a new day has indeed dawned. It began with a man with a deep-seated hope that this country could be changed for the better, could be turned back from this nightmarish detour we had so recently taken, largely without our consent. This man managed to bring millions of people along with him on this journey of hope, and now in the fledgling days of his presidency, President Obama has shown us that he meant what he said about bringing change to this country. Do terrorists need to be captured and brought to justice? Of course they do, but justice is not found in the hands of those who view torture as an acceptable method of interrogation. It is not found in secret prisons and the chambers of Guantanamo. If it is to be found anywhere, it will be in a court of law in the light of day.

Yes, our existing judicial system sometimes fails to live up to our own standards of right and wrong. Sometimes it gets mired in the limited mindset of the majority of people in a given moment of time. It has denied people of African heritage the right to sit wherever they wanted to on a bus or in a restaurant. It has denied couples of mixed racial heritage the right to marry. But those laws were changed by the people of this country. As our consciousness becomes more enlightened, so do our laws.

The laws of this land still deny same-sex couples the equal right of marriage in all but one state, but those laws will change as well. They have to, because they are a denial of equal civil rights to millions of American citizens. Somewhere down the line, enough of us will realize that we cannot all truly be free until we all have equal (not separate) rights. Separate marriage rights are no more equal than separate schools, separate restrooms, and separate drinking fountains were equal for the African-Americans living in the southern portion of the United States of America sixty years ago. Those injustices began to change when enough people stood up and said, "Stop! This is not right!"

I grew up in the South during a lot of the upheaval that brought about the changes that were needed there. As an ten-old-girl, I was bussed fifteen miles from my white neighborhood to one of the "Black" schools, so we could begin to become an integrated society. I stood in a classroom filled with faces I had never seen before, most of which were black. I had never been around more than one "token" black student at a time. Suddenly I felt more like the token. Was it uncomfortable at first? You bet it was. Was I afraid? Oh, yes, I was afraid, because I didn't know what to expect from all those black students and my black homeroom teacher. They were not only strangers, they also looked different to me. But with some help from my mother and a sweet, loving smile from my first black teacher, I was able to choose hope over fear. In doing so, that school year became one of my most memorable ones, and that African-American homeroom teacher, Mrs. Scott, became one of my favorite teachers.

Changes in our way of thinking usually comes through experience, positively or negatively. For me, the change came through getting to know African-American students and teachers, one person, one smile, one friendship at a time. In those early years of de-segregation, I learned a powerful lesson. People are just people. No matter what their culture, heritage, religion, ability, IQ, social status, or, yes, sexual orientation. Those first years of change in the South were definitely ones of "de-segregation." It took a little time for it to become "integration," but it did finally.

I have the same hope for laws and attitudes surrounding same-sex marriage. I currently do not have a partner in my life, but that doesn't mean that I don't want the law to stand behind me and millions of other gays and lesbians in this country. We pay equal taxes. We should enjoy equal rights. Does that make you feel uncomfortable? Maybe it does. Does your personal discomfort make it right to deny some of the citizens of this country equal rights? No, it does not. You too must choose hope over fear. It is only your fear that stops you from seeing the members of the LGBT community as equally entitled to the rights you enjoy so freely. Maybe you should try standing in a sea of faces in the LGBT community some time. Then make the choice to embrace hope rather than fear, to begin making friends one person at a time. Embrace the dawning of this new day and know that it dawns on all of us, whatever the color of our skin, the shape of our face, or the gender of our beloved.

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