On my way to visit a friend on Saturday morning, I noticed a commotion, some sort of large-scale event, happening on Duke’s East Campus. Out of curiosity I chose to drive past the campus and was immediately thrown into an atmosphere full of rainbow flags, elaborately decorated cars, and people dressed in vibrant, colorful outfits. There was an air of lively celebration that I couldn’t help but smile at. I then remembered this was North Carolina’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Festival. At this time last year it was easy for me to take in the scene without thinking too much about why the festival was being held in the first place. But after my experiences this summer, where I began learning about the gay rights movement, I realized this festival and that it was freely happening is evidence of just how far our society has come in terms of gay rights.
In thinking about this parade, I began to compare my reaction to the festival when I first saw it my freshman year to my reaction this past weekend. They couldn’t be more different. Coming into Duke, I had never known anyone from the LGBTQ community. This fact along with the fact that I’m straight made me think the issue of gay rights didn’t pertain to me. As I observed the festival I remember feeling uncomfortable as well as disconnected from everyone there. But three years later, I find myself looking on with happiness and pride. Though I didn’t stop and physically take part, I felt connected to the scene. What was it that changed for me?
I learned a lot about the history of various social movements through the Moxie Project this summer. The readings I did along with the interactions with individuals who are actively working toward social change pieced together a picture of society for me that was much more interconnected than I had realized. While I used to feel that I could only relate to issues involving discrimination against women because I am a woman, it has become clear that I also relate to other populations who also face discrimination. Working together with and supporting other social change agendas that focus on discrimination, whether it be based in racism, sexism, or classism, is a necessary aspect in influencing social change at a policy level.
The fact that a gay pride festival attracts so many supporters and no visible opposition marks a tremendous achievement when considering where the gay rights movement was 40 years ago. In the 1970’s there were instances of police brutality against members of the LGBTQ community and gay rights activists. In 2011 the police are helping block off roads so gay pride festivals can take place. In the 1970’s and 1980’s there were laws against same sex marriage and the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 2011 we have seen the passage of a New York law to allow same sex marriage and the repeal of a policy that banned gays from openly serving in the military. At least from my perspective it appears there are major strides being made in terms of gay rights. That legislation is beginning to be passed in favor of gay rights suggests there may be some shift in perspective on the issue. Gay rights opponents used to find more successes in striking down gay rights initiatives based on the idea that homosexuals are a threat to traditional family values and thus the status quo our society had contrived. Now there seem to be more and more successes on the pro gay rights side along with more supporters. Could it be that efforts of the gay rights movement are slowly succeeding in shifting our society’s perspective of what is the status quo?
It’s a complicated question and one that I don’t have the answer too. After all true social change is a long-term process. It takes time to truly make social change because breaking individuals from what is perceived as the norm is uncomfortable. It means taking risks and working with others who share similar goals of achieving equality for all. And that’s a recognition that results in success: that it is not enough to fight only for gaining rights for one population. It is necessary for social change movements to take into account where racism, classism, and sexism may still exist in social change agendas and take the routes that will benefit every population that faces discrimination. All populations who face discrimination should have freedom to live the way he or she wishes.
Maybe that’s why I felt so connected to the festival that day. Whether members of the LGBTQ community have the right to marry, among other things, may never directly impact my life but that this right exists for them has a broader meaning that does affect me. It means that I live in a society that has become accepting of an individual’s right to choose a lifestyle without fear of discrimination. At least it’s getting there, slowly but surely.