Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The LGBT Community and Minority Recognition

The other day I was having a discussion with someone I know when gay rights came up. I try not to shoehorn the subject into my conversations, but it happened to come up then because of the whole Miss California debacle. Somehow during the conversation I ended up mentioning something about LGBT people being a minority, and this person (who happens to be Hispanic, but that’s not relevant to the topic) objected to me classifying LGBT people as a minority.

Once I managed to avoid going into huffy mode I tried to ask what she meant by minority versus what I meant, and it got me thinking about how this seems to be a pervasive topic. When legislation is introduced in wider non-discrimination causes to protect LGBT people it often raises people’s hackles, and a lot of work in the LGBT community has revolved around building to community’s strength and having it be recognized as a minority. But what does it really mean to be a minority, and what are the criteria for being a “real” minority?

In a purely descriptive sense LGBT people are a minority in the sense that they are not the majority. Depending on who you ask the percent of LGBT people in the United States is anywhere between less than 1% and 10%, and it’s nearly impossible to nail down exactly how many LGBT people there are both in and out of the closet. But in the United States to be a “minority” carries with it a special status and certain implications. We don’t consider people with blue eyes to be a minority, but we consider people of African descent to be. So it can’t be said that minority status is just based on physical characteristics, instead there has to be some consequence to belonging to a particular group for it to be a recognized minority.

These consequences don’t have to be as formal as institutionalized racism and homophobia, but those are certainly forms they can take. It seems that we only get a recognized minority when there’s some system in place that splits people up along lines of belonging or not belonging, which usually takes the form of race or ethnicity. Now we have laws in place that prohibit discrimination based on race, but it does not stop all of it. Now you just can’t be formal about it, it has to take more covert forms.

I think we’re all familiar with how race and racism manifests in our society, but when it comes to sexual orientation some people get up in arms about classifying LGBT people as a minority. I can only speculate, but I imagine that it in part has to do with the fact that some people don’t like that in asserting themselves LGBT people are “intruding” on a space that used to be reserved for races and ethnicities. Since there are still a large number of people who think that you “choose” to be gay that may also impact whether they consider LGBT people a minority. We don’t, for instance, consider as small group of Democrats in a mostly Republican town to be a minority in the same sense that a community of color would be, since you choose which political party you affiliate with and can change it relatively easily. It gets complicated when you get into religious minorities, since they are often closely tied to ethnicity and cultural identity, and historically persecution of religious minorities has been a vigorous as the persecution of races (the repeal of the Edict of Nantes is a perfect example of how this sort of religious persecution can take a concrete form).

There’s no doubt that LGBT people are persecuted in formal and informal ways. One needs look no further than Proposition 8 to see the extreme form this can take, when people spend millions of dollars of their own money to prevent one group from having a right. Persecution can also take the form of lack of protection, and this indeed the case in many LGBT issues. Hate crimes are a way of recognizing minority status, but there has been much opposition to widening the umbrella of what’s considered a “hate crime” since in declaring that an attack against one group is a hate crime minority status is implicitly granted.

So there’s little doubt that LGBT are indeed a minority in the strictly numerical sense, and there’s little doubt that systems exist to deprive LGBT people of rights and liberties and formal and informal settings. But there is still resistance to recognizing the LGBT as a legitimate minority despite this, and this is where we get into the meat of it.

The idea that you can only be “born” into a minority may contribute to why it’s so hard for the LGBT community to assert itself as a legitimate minority. The vast majority of LGBT people I know say that they were born that way, but that’s not a widely held view at this point. Since a person can also hide their orientation this may also contribute to the idea that LGBT are not a “real” minority, since it’s not like skin color or bone structure and short of passing for another race one cannot “change” their race.

In the wider sense I think the reluctance to recognize the LGBT community as a minority stems from the fact that calling a group a minority grants them a certain amount of legitimacy and power, especially in the legal arena. To recognize the LGBT community as a minority means that anti-discrimination laws have to be enforced in the case of discrimination based on orientation or gender identity, and it forces judges to apply equal protection statues to cases involving LGBT issues.

This naturally opens up a whole slew of issues that opponents of marriage equality and LGBT rights do not want this to happen, since it not only grants rights they want taken away but frames them as bigots going after a persecuted minority and undermines the legitimacy their authority and cause. They become bullies, and at that point it becomes harder and harder for them to justify their actions to the public. They clearly do not want this to happen, so a large part of their campaign works to frame LGBT people as a dangerous “other” who threaten the minority by their existence and in the process deny the very real discrimination that they perpetrate against a community that has few protections against their actions.

As for my friend, I do not believe she meant any ill will, but she was a good demonstration of why it is so hard for the LGBT movement to gain ground when we’re still struggling to even be recognized as a minority whose rights are being impeded on.

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