Monday, August 13, 2012

#LGBTQequalityfail: An Open Letter to Mayor Gow Fields

The 4-3 vote denying healthcare benefits to same-sex couples by the Lakeland City Commission was a victory for the LGBTQ community. Yeah, you read that right. That wasn’t a typo. The vote actually will do more good in the long run for equality than had it passed. Why? Because now we have a reason to fight. This vote gave a face to discrimination, and that face looks like Edie YatesPhillip WalkerHoward Wiggs and Mayor Gow Fields. Over the next week I will be writing a series of letters to the City Commissioners. If you care about equality, I encourage you to join me.

Mayor Gow Fields, Lakeland, Florida

Dear Mayor Gow Fields:

I am saddened by your vote against equality for LGBTQ city employees. To be clear, it isn’t really your vote that I take issue, but the reasons you gave for your vote—reasons that I feel fall short of what I look for in an elected official.

I commend you and the Commission on your civility and demonstrating, in your words, “how to disagree without being disagreeable”. If any of my words come across as disagreeable, please know that is not my intention, but in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In MLK's case, many White moderate clergy were painting his actions as disagreeable, but time has shown us who was on the right side of history. I hope that I write in that same tradition of justice demanding.

I have put your argument from the City Commission meeting in italics, with my thoughts interspersed:

In the strongest possible terms, I absolutely disagree that [not providing same-sex partner health benefits for city employees] is discriminatory. We didn’t create the laws of marriage in this country; they existed well before any of us were born… …We didn’t carve out same-sex couples from this benefit. They existed before we got here. So to suggest that we are being discriminatory is just not accurate.

Let’s talk about the laws of marriage that existed before you were born. You were born in 1963—two years before it would be legal for you, as a man of color, to marry a White woman. By your own logic, if we only consider the laws of marriage before your birth in 1963, we would not offer benefits to interracial partners. After all, it wouldn’t be discriminatory because we didn’t carve them out of the benefit, and these laws of marriage existed before you were born.

Continuing with your argument:

I could go into my personal beliefs on this issue. God loves and accepts every last one of us. But he calls us to behave a certain way. To follow the directives in the law that he has given us. And he gives us the power to choose whether we do or we don’t. And everyone in here will have to answer for that. We will each have to give our own account.

Here are the words of a Virginia Judge in the 1940s in his upholding of the state’s ban on interracial marriage: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

He too used God to support his convictions for inequality. No disrespect meant, but it was bad theology then and your using God is bad theology today. As an elected official, it is not your role to interpret Scripture in order to set policy and law. That is a theocracy. It is your role in some cases to look out for the rights of the minority in spite of the attempts of an oppressive majority to deny equality. The 14th Amendment of our Constitution means something to me. It is the amendment that created our present day society that allowed me to vote for you, a person of color, to be my mayor. That "equal protection under the law” part extends further than just the color of a person’s skin. So many government officials before you have used their distorted interpretation of Scripture to support unequal protection under the law. It saddens me that you chose to do the same.  

Continuing with your argument:

…I have spent a lot of time listening to both sides of the issue, but I haven’t listened to people who claim this is a homophobic issue. I have coached gays and lesbians… …I have employed gays and lesbians. So when someone says that I am homophobic, they haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins.

Mayor Fields, I can’t call you homophobic… I don’t really know you. However, someone knowing, coaching or employing a person who identifies as LGBTQ is not the standard to determine if someone isn’t homophobic. I think we both know many coaches, employers and even friends, who interact with people of color, who we know to be racist. Myself, being a person of privilege (White, middle class, educated, straight, clergy, male…) I constantly have to avoid getting defensive and need to check myself, being aware of how I unintentionally participate in cultural and institutional systems of racism. As a straight, high ranking government official, I call on you to do the same—be slow to dismiss others when they call you out on your privilege and be aware of how there are systems alive and strong in Lakeland that create inequality for LGBTQ persons that you might unintentionally participate in.

When you finished your argument with “they haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins,” the woman standing behind me, who identifies as a lesbian, said, “Nor have you in mine.” That is an ironic phrase for you to end with. Its origins are a Native American proverb used by a people oppressed by a government that denied them of their rights and equal protection under the law, simply because of who they were born to be. In all due respect, Mayor, you are not the oppressed in this proverb. You are the person of privilege and power denying equal protection under the law.


Rev. Andy Oliver

Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Joe South, 1970

If I could be you, if you could be me for just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside each other's mind,
If you could see you through my eyes instead of your ego
I believe you'd be surprised to see that you've been blind,

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Now your whole world you see around you is just a reflection
And the law of common says you're gonna reap just what you sow
So unless you've lived a life of total perfection
You'd better be careful of every stone that you should throw
[ Lyrics from: ]
And yet we spend the day throwin' stones at one another
'Cause I don't think or wear my hair the same way you do,
Well, I may be common people but I'm your brother
And when you strike out you're tryin' to hurt me it's hurtin' you
Lord, have mercy

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Babe, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

And there are people on reservations and out in the ghettos
And brother, there, but for the grace of God, go you and I,
And if I only had wings of a little angel, well
Don't you know, I'd fly to the top of a mountain and then I'd cry

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Babe, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Better walk a mile in my shoes
Try before what you're doing

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Oh, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes...

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