The Non-transferability of Oppression

Here’s a letter I wrote to my local paper, the Post and Courier, which they kindly published on February 18, 2004:

Another Prejudice

I was, I say was, surprised and somewhat shocked at the vigor and venom of prominent South Carolineans rushing to “defend marriage” from dastardly gay couples who want to swear the same vows of lifelong fidelity as we heterosexuals do.

What, I wondered, were they “defending” marriage from? The gays aren’t set on destroying marriage, they’re trying to embrace it! Are we really concerned that heterosexual couples will suddenly abandon their marriages en masse if they find themselves sharing the institution with homosexuals?

How can the sacredness of vows between a man and woman be made less sacred because somewhere else two men or two women are swearing likewise? It makes no sense.

Then I remembered that this is the state that took until 1998 to remove the ban on mixed-race marriages from its Constitution, and that 22 percent of South Carolinians opposed the amendment removing it. Suddenly it all became clear.

It’s not about logic, it’s about bigotry. Religious bigotry has been against the law in America almost from the beginning, and racial bigotry has just about caught up. Gays are the next on the list, that’s all.

If the amendment banning same-sex marriages passes, I wonder if it will also last over a century? I voted to repeal the ban on mixed-race marriages, and I’ll be voting against this ban, too. I’m neither gay nor in a mixed marriage, but I’m working to raise my son in a state as free from irrational prejudice as possible.

The Post and Courier requires you to include your postal address with letters to the editor, and I received some interesting private responses.  They fell into exactly two categories; neatly typed and literate letters of support and semi-literate hand-scrawled opposition, the latter showing a disturbing propensity for red ink.

I was appalled to find that this was still an issue anywhere in the United States, even the ex-Confederacy, in 2004. What made it worse was when I extended the argument to gay marriage in conversations with my friends here in South Carolina. My black friends, even the two in interracial marriages, were dead set against recognizing the obvious parallels.

Apparently I wasn’t alone in this, as I saw on “One Punk Under God”:

And, I have to say, I see the same response toward atheists from an awful lot of people who have suffered their own repressions but refuse to extend toward atheists the tolerance they rightfully sought for themselves.

It’s less pronounced from gays than from racial minorities, probably because most religious organizations are opposed to both gays and atheists, but still, there’s little doubt that gays are less supportive of atheists than the reverse.

To get to the meat of it, though, does it matter? Isn’t injustice injustice? We need to fight it where it crops up, and there are genuine arguments to be made that the prejudicial plights of atheists are less than those of our brothers and sisters in oppression.

As an outspoken atheist in the Bible Belt, I’ve been beaten for explicitly that reason three times, and about as many times it’s been one of several possible reasons. I’m pretty sure I lost at least two jobs for that reason, though I can’t swear to it. The prejudice is there, but it’s a damn far cry from what nonwhites and gays have suffered here. I doubt my mouthiness would have survived had I been gay and/or black as well as atheist.

Nonwhites, particularly and especially blacks, don’t even have the option of laying low and ‘passing’ other than in very marginal cases. Gays and atheists can avoid the direct persecution by pretending to be straight and God-fearing; ‘coloreds’  can’t.

Further, we atheists don’t have it as bad as even white gays do; being forced to pretend to be God-heads isn’t even close to being as oppressive as being forced to pretend to be straight.

To bring it back to marriage, it was always possible for an atheist to marry, either another atheist or a theist. There were actual laws preventing interracial marriages in living memory. There are still laws preventing gays from marrying the people they love.

So I’d really like to hear a little less whining about how we atheists are oppressed “just like” gays or blacks. Yes, the fact of prejudice is there, but the quality of it is entirely different. Let’s all fight all prejudice wherever we find it, but let’s not pretend that it’s all of a level.


~ by B.T. Murtagh on June 30, 2009.

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