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Posted By Subaltern Queer

American Way of Life

By the fourth of July of 1969, the Stonewall protests were ‘officially’ over. Fifty years later, the New York Police Commissioner offerred an official apology for the actions of the NYPD back in 1969.

The challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community have never ended, though the situation has improved in many ways. However, one way in which the situation has gotten worse is that, back in 1969, it was perfectly acceptable to be openly hostile to homosexuals. Today, people may have the same degree of hostility (and, sometimes, even more), but most people are smart enough to keep quiet. Employers mandate ‘diversity training’. Certain things cannot be said.

But those things can still be thought. Discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community must be covert. You can discriminate just as badly, but you need to do so in other ways. You can't say “we don’t hire gays.” But you can refuse to hire anyone you suspect to be gay. And you can find some ‘performance issue’ to fire them.

A Wheaton policeman told me that, yes, they did target black people driving west on Roosevelt Road. At least back then, that was the principal route for drugs to the western suburbs. When I asked about racial profiling, the policeman pointed out that there were many traffic laws that most people don’t know about. All the police need to do is follow a car for a little while waiting for an improper lane change. If the police think they're ‘justified’ to suspect you might be carrying drugs, they can search your car. Especially if you're black.

The phrase ‘American Way of Life’ arose in response to communism. But the very idea of the American Way of Life really goes back to the founding of the United States.

It’s a way of life in which all people are supposedly equal. Except if you’re black (since you’re only 3/5th human), a woman (since you had no vote), a native American. We are taught in school that the Puritans came to the new world to have religious freedom, but it's not mentioned that their religious freedom included oppressing anyone not like them. That has not changed.

The idea that the ‘American Way of Life” is open to all is a delusion. Native Americans were systematically oppressed and forced to accept treaty after treaty after treaty—none of which were followed by the European colonists. Black Americans were almost all brought to the ‘city on a hill’ as slaves. Once they were ‘freed’, there were numerous ways to make sure they were never really free. They were promised ‘reparations’ in the form of forty acres of land and a mule. For a very short period, that happened. But, when African-Americans started to thrive economically, that success was always snuffed out by white people, sometimes by killing but more often by subtler means.

When we talk about systematic oppression, we mean things like ‘redlining’, in which certain neighborhoods were off-limits to black people. We mean the federal government making sure that black people couldn’t get the typical thirty-year mortgages that white people could get. In the US, the quickest way to wealth accumulation was owning a house. Making sure that it would be next to impossible for black Americans to own a house meant that they would always be renters and never able to build up personal wealth.

As a white person (and one with blond hair and blue eyes), I always worry about trying to make my struggles as a queer man sound like they are anything like those which confront blacks. would not be red-lined; I’ve been able to get a mortgage. You can’t see that I’m gay by the color of my skin.

Yet I think Stonewall and the Black Lives Matter movements address similar concerns. The first of them is simply the right to be, to exist. We noted that homosexuals were in effect criminals. Black people in the US are usually seen by white people through the same lens.

Historically, when people in the LGBTQ+ community tried to make their voices heard, they were often silenced. In 1953, an organization tried to publish a magazine called One. It’s first issue featured a story about homosexuals in heterosexual marriages. Even though the issue was wrapped in brown paper, the postal service alleged that the magazine was ‘obscene’ and refused to deliver it. Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the postal service was obligated to deliver the magazine—hot off the press from five years ago!

I remember my father (who grew up in Chicago) telling me that Mayor Daley (the senior) was effective because “he kept the blacks in their place.” To this day, I’m not quite sure as to the extent with which my father approved of that. But ‘keeping people in their place’ has always been essential to the American Way of Life.

Native Americans need to be on reservations where they are neither seen nor heard. Black people need to live in the ‘other’ part of town. It is debatable whether the gay guys moved to Boystown in Chicago (yes, it’s really called that) because they wanted to belong to a community or whether they didn’t feel welcome in other places. But the American Way of Life depends on making sure everyone knows their place—and stays there.

Stonewall must be seen as being in line with protests against the assumptions of the American Way of Life. ‘Family values’ has long been code for ‘straight people’. The American Way of life may perhaps be finding some room for gays but only with reluctance. Gay marriage was never simply about allowing gays to get married; it was also about allowing them to become part of the American Way of Life.

But the challenge for the LGBTQ+ community to become part of the American Way of Life is of an entirely different magnitude than that of black Americans to become part of the American Way of Life. How could the American Way of Life find room to include people that the American Way of Life was established to keep in their place?

Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, we have to take a hard look at what we are really celebrating. In effect, we are celebrating the independence of white people of means to be free. Poor white people were not initially allowed to vote, nor were any women, nor were people of color.

I find it heartening to read that, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 83% of Americans are not proud to be Americans at the moment. I have long been part of that group, often taking refuge in my Canadian citizenship (though recognizing that Canada has a long history of oppression too). 

The difficulty—of a huge magnitude—is that, as long as the American Way of Life is the norm, people who don’t ‘fit’ are going to be excluded. To fix that, the American Way of Life itself needs to be scrapped. Perhaps that means rewriting the Constitution. At the very least, keeping people in their ‘place’ means that only some people have true ‘independence’.

Is the United States of America ready to be a place where African-American, Native American, and LGBTQ+ lives are treated as equal in everyday practice?

Don't hold your breath.