Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Civil Rights and Diversity: Serving Witness, Giving Voice

Miriam over at AnceStories2: Stories of Me for My Descendants has an interesting journal prompt this week. Entitled Civil Rights and Diversity, she asks her readers to write about the various challenges that families faced in terms of racial, religious or other forms of discrimination. And even if your family was not a target of such practices, if you remember other families, friends or neighbors who were told that they lived outside the margins of the rest of society.

Before I start I want to thank Miriam for this post and challenge. Very often as we pursue our own genealogy or family history research, we can do so with a set of "blinders" on and not realize what others may have experienced in our ancestors' communities. I've often wondered if my ancestors owned slaves or were abolitionists, if any of my female ancestors were suffragettes or women's libbers (that's a term I haven't heard or used for a while!), if any of my relatives practiced forms of discrimination or helped to break down barriers put up against others. I try to remind myself, from time to time, to step outside of "my family" and look around at what was going on at that time, then step back in and put my family in perspective.

What was the racial, ethnic, or religious situation in the community where you grew up? Was your family part of a racial, ethnic, or religious majority or minority? Were there differences in your community or family such as developmental disabilities, mental illness, or social class differences? Were there bi-racial or mixed-faith families?

I grew up in Liberty, Sullivan County, New York which is part of the Borscht Belt of Jewish resorts made famous during the 1940s and 1950s. By the time I grew up, the community had a very sizeable Jewish presence with a bakery and deli that closed on the High Holy Days. Our school also had off for Yom Kippur and Passover. Many of my friends in school were Jews and through them I became very familiar with religious practices and customs especially the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah.

The concept of mixed-faith families was a hot button issue in the late 1960s as was mixed-raced families. Keep in mind that inter-racial marriage was still illegal in some states up until 1967. I knew several mixed-faith families and because of certain prejudices it often meant that there would be turmoil especially around holidays.

How did this affect you and your family? Did your family experience discrimination or prejudice, or were family members prejudiced against others? Have you ever feared for your life because of prejudice?

Growing up, my mother was one of the only divorced women in our town. This was at the time when the Roman Catholic Church no longer considered divorce a reason for excommunication from the church. Having attended parochial school for the first three grades, I always felt "set apart" when it came to interacting with other students. When questioned about my father and why he didn't live with us, I often declined to answer. Even I myself did not really understand it at that time in my live.

I have found quite a bit of prejudice, especially against Jews and Blacks in my family. My mother was a big advocate of taking me and my brother aside after a visit to relatives where someone made bigotted comments. She explained that those views were not shared by her or by open-minded people. She also made it clear that we were not to make those comments either. I think it is only actions like these that help break the chain of prejudice in a family.

In my research of letters and diaries from the 1940s through the 1950s, it is disturbing to see my relatives, some still living, use derogatory terms to describe others. It also puts me in a difficult position of deciding whether or not to include such terms when transcribing documents. As a family historian, as much as it may cause commotion and strife, I believe I need to be true to the document. And I shouldn't try to "explain away" why that person used such a term. I can, however, put it in context of the times, much as we do slavery in this country. It doesn't mean it was right, but it gives witness to the fact that it did happen, and that it had and still has consequences.

What were you taught about people who were different from you? Do you still believe this? Why or why not? If not, what made you change your mind?

Sometimes I still laugh at one piece of bigotry that a family member tried to pass on to me: that Jews had horns on their head. I never believed it, nor did I embarass myself by asking school mates to show me their horns. It was only in college that I found out how this bit of "urban legend" came about: as I studied Art History, I noticed a statue of Moses by Michelangelo. Moses is stunningly executed but also with horns on his head. Through my research I found out that Michelangelo relied on a translation of the Bible that mis-interpreted the Hebrew term karan (meaning "radiate light") to mean "grew horns" (similar to the Latin "cornutam").

Thankfully I am a true skeptic and live up to my first name. If I read or hear something which just doesn't fit for me, I am off to research it and try to get as many facts and differing points of view as necessary. My mother taught me to do this and to not accept at face value what people say.

Were there households in your neighborhood or community where a couple was co-habitating rather than being legally married? Were there gays and lesbians in your community? Or did you grow up in such a diverse household? What was your family's or the community's reaction to this?

Being gay I have a somewhat advantaged perspective on the LGBT issue. I am also the only self-identified (I dislike the term "out") homosexual in my family of over 100 living relatives. My family overall has been very accepting (I agree with Miriam on the use of the word "tolerant") and to be honest it is a non-issue. My partner (I'll call him Fang) and I travel home and visit relatives and are invited to gatherings and celebrations just as any couple would be. Since I made the decision in 1983 to be open and honest with my family about my sexuality, I am amazed at not only how far my family has progressed, but how the rest of society has as well.

But it wasn't always easy. While my family and work environments were always free from any discrimination or bigotry, there were times when school and even living with neighbors was difficult. Many don't know that for a short time in my life, I was a seminary student, and an openly-gay one at that. I was involved with a denomination that permitted LGBT people to practice ministry and thought, at that time, it was a career to pursue. I had my challenges but the seminary supported me 100 percent. And more recently, Fang and I were in a difficult situation with a neighbor involving some hateful behavior directed towards us. We eventually had to move out of our home but thankfully due to civil rights protections in Illinois, we were able to get a monetary settlement for what we endured for two years.

Do you remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s or the AIM movement of the 1970s? What about the Equal Rights Amendment or the AIDS epidemic? What were your feelings or thoughts on these matters? Did they affect you directly, and how?

I don't remember the Civil Rights Movement as much as I do the American Indian Movement or the push for the ERA amendment. And the AIDS pandemic was just beginning when I came out in 1983 and in the ensuing years it would affect me directly. I lost so many friends and acquaintances that I stopped writing names in ink in my address book. I couldn't stand to see so many people crossed-out especially when they were less than 40 years in age.

What do you remember about meeting someone for the first time who was different from you in some way? What preconceived ideas were dismantled as you got to know this person as an individual, rather than as a symbol of your differences?

While I didn't have any pre-conceived notions as to others who were different, I relished the opportunity to meet people of different races and faiths. Going to college at age 17 was an eye-opener for me, especially since it was in a culturally diverse city - Washington, DC. We all think of it as the capital of the United States but once you live there, you realize how many different cultures and faiths inhabit that area. I worked in jobs with many Ethopian, Somalian, and Filipino people - I enjoyed celebrating various holidays and sharing different foods.

If you are a person considered "different" by the mainstream, do you have a successful experience to share where you were able to change someone else's preconceived ideas about your diverse situation? How did that occur?

Being a "different" person (and I don't mind that term), I think being able to convince my family that I was still the same old Thomas has been my biggest success. I am able to show them that not everyone defines success as having a wife and children and that the word "family" represents different concepts to different people. I also believe that living my live in an honest fashion is the best testament to success - it helps to break down people's prejudiced views as to what a gay person is or how they act.

Are there any oral histories in your family about being able to vote or own land or other civil rights for the first time? What about stories were rights were denied? Are there events in your family history where ancestors or relatives triumphed over social injustice? Were any of your ancestors social reformers? Are you?

So far, my research has not turned up many social reformers or "agitators" as I like to call them. And then there is me. During the 1990s I was very involved with several movements including increased funding for AIDS research. I also was part of a group that stood vigil at the funeral of Randy Shilts (author of And The Band Played On) against actions threatened by the Rev. Fred Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.


Thomas Jackson said...

Nice, very nice. We are working with one of our victims on post in which we have asked him to respond to her challege as well.

Apple said...

A very tough topic that I have decided to journal privately as my views differ from many of my living relatives. I hope to be as honest and cover all of the prompts as well as you have here.

Colleen said...

Thomas ... this was truly a well-written and concise post. Thanks for sharing.