Does Equality Begin at Home?

by Nancy Nangeroni

Delivered at the Massachusetts “Equality Begins at Home” rally sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in March 1999. The rally kicked off a week of events, including a lobbying day at the state house.

As I thought about what to say today, the first thoughts to come to mind were, “Equality? We don’t need equality. We’re not all equal. We’re all quite different, and what we need is respect for our differences.” It seems to me that when we think about equality, we have to be very careful. If we think in terms of being equal to others, then it’s just one small step to thinking of ourselves as the same as others. And if we’re the same, then there may be others who are different, and maybe they should make more of an effort to be like us. Maybe they don’t deserve the same things that we do, and maybe it’s not our job to include them in our efforts.

If we think in terms of being equal, then we have to admit that everyone is not exactly equal. There are some people who are stronger, some people who are more skilled at drawing or making music or managing a business or baking bread or parenting children or making love. Some enjoy a rich family history, and others have been cut off from their past. Some have suffered terrible hurt, and others have been more lucky. We are all different, and our job this week is not to convince anyone that we’re their equal.

Our job instead is to lay rightful claim to equality of protection, opportunity, and respect under the law, without regard for social, racial, economic, cultural, sexual or gender difference.

“But wait a minute,” you say, “this Equality Begins at Home thing is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activist effort. We can’t solve everybody’s problems, and we have enough of our own. We have to concentrate on our own needs if we’re going to get them met.”

To that I say, hogwash. That’s the same kind of narrow thinking that the “haves” have always used to justify their exclusion of the “have nots”. That’s the same kind of thinking that creates division, rather than fostering healing across differences. That’s the same kind of thinking that thins our ranks, that chokes off our own true power.

If we really want to make a difference, if we really want to make this world a little bit better place for our efforts, then we need to include within the scope of our efforts everyone who is being hurt by the perversions of our systems of democracy and capitalism. If we advocate only for ourselves, then we are just one more small group crying for more.

But if we advocate not only for ourselves, but for all those in dire need, we join our voices with the voices speaking out against other oppressions. And for every oppressed group to whose voice we add our own, we will add some of their voices to our own, and our voices will grow in strength, and become more and more difficult for those in power to ignore.

So in our advocacy work this week, let us make certain to include in our thoughts and words the poor, the disempowered, and all those for whom a police uniform means not protection but instead legalized terrorism; guardianship of the great American class divide. Too many of our brothers and sisters of color and of gender difference have suffered at the hands of bigoted police officers who presume guilt on the basis of appearance.

If we can make progress towards eliminating the systematic terrorizing of gay and lesbian folks, then we can make progress towards eliminating the racist tyranny against citizens and communities of color. And if we have hope of that, then we can make progress towards eliminating the systematic police terrorism of all sexual and gender varieties of sex workers. “But,” you say, “sex work is illegal.” Well, in this state, so is sex between consenting adult men or women, and part of our agenda here is to change that. But while we’re doing so, let us not forget the others.

The law has always been the province of the privileged, and it remains our duty to challenge that privilege, even when it is ours. For many people, especially the poor and the disempowered, our system of capitalist law is not a friend and protector. For them, it is an evil exploiter.

If we side only with the lawful, then we become defenders of the status quo, and not the agents of meaningful social change. If we are to truly be the defenders of justice we claim to be, then we cannot ignore the anguished cries of those for whom our system of law does not work.

We would also do well to be reminded of the spirituality of non-human life, the animals and plants with whom we share this planet. Their spirituality is inextricably linked to our own, but completely ignored by most of our western systems of religious thought. To the beautiful non-human life that completes us and makes life worth living, our capitalist system is a mass murderer.

Democratic government is not a static system. It is a living organism whose structures of governance constantly undergo revision according to the needs of its populace. As caring and justice-minded citizens in a democracy, it is our duty to hear the cries of our neighbors, even those who just got off the boat, and to make certain that the adjustments to our system of governance that we will promote include relief not just ourselves, but for all those who suffer. If we advocate only for ourselves, then we are just a gaggle of small voices crying for our mother’s milk. But if we advocate for all who suffer from the inequities of our system, then we become greater, and our efforts become worthy of retelling as examples of inspiration.

We have come a long way in healing the hurt within ourselves to the point where we can advocate from a position of healthy confidence. Let us seek always to expand our circles of caring to include more and more of the world around us. In this spiritual endeavor we will find commonality across racial, economic, political, cultural, and geographic dimensions of difference. As we do so, we will build a new kind of movement, one that respects and includes all difference, one that bans no one from participation, one whose membership will grow without limit. Let us make the influence of that movement one that is healing to all it touches. Then, as that healing power grows, we will begin to achieve a society that truly honors the oneness of all of us.