There is a wonderful character on Whoopi Goldberg’s new sitcom–a handyman named Naseem, who identifies himself as a Persian from the Middle East and gets furious when he is mistaken for an Arab. Much of the show’s humor comes from the fact that he sees an obvious distinction that is invisible to everyone else. A recent discussion about gay rights and the transgendered community made me think about Naseem.
There is a wonderful character on Whoopi Goldberg’s new sitcom—a handyman named Naseem, who identifies himself as a “Persian” from the Middle East and gets furious when he is mistaken for an Arab. Much of the show’s humor comes from the fact that he sees an obvious distinction that is invisible to everyone else. A recent discussion about gay rights and the transgendered community made me think about Naseem.
It also reminded me of an old episode from the very first “Star Trek” series. Two men—the last survivors of their planet’s population—continue to fight each other until both are mortally wounded. Each of them is black on one side and white on the other. Captain Kirk asks one of the dying men why they can’t stop fighting now that they are the only two left. “We are total opposites—we have nothing in common.” the man says. When Kirk says he sees no difference, the man screams out in astonishment. “How can you not tell the difference? I am black on the left side and he is black on the right!”
The discussion that evoked these comparisons involved the role of transgendered or intersexed people in the fight for gay civil rights. It was suggested that “they” didn’t really belong in the “movement,” that “they” were concerned with a different set of problems and prejudices—and that by including terminology and issues inclusive of transgendered concerns, activists were needlessly complicating the politics surrounding gay rights. The subtext was unmistakable: if “they” weren’t tagging along with their separate and troublesome issues, we’d make more progress.
It is certainly true that biological sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are terms that refer to different things. Humans can be born with an indeterminate anatomical sexual identity. We can be born a male or female who is “trapped” in the wrong anatomy. Or we can be sexually attracted to members of our own gender. Scientifically, those are distinct situations. Politically, however, they pose precisely the same challenge to majority social norms.
It is a very common, very human desire to be a member of a group or community. Unfortunately, in order for membership to be meaningful, it must exclude as well as include—it’s no fun being a member of the group if anyone can join! Often, exclusion is appropriate. If we are forming a choral group, it makes sense to exclude those who can’t carry a tune. Mensa can refuse entry to those who don’t score high enough on IQ tests. Sororities can pledge only those they find compatible. But when we come to the community called America, the criteria for membership must be consistent with the country’s ideals and founding principles. A country that values equality before the law cannot deny some people access to jobs or educations because their skin is the wrong color. It can’t tell other people that they can’t hold public office because they go to the wrong church. And it can’t tell still others that they must settle for second-class citizenship because they love inappropriately, or were born the wrong gender.
In the America we keep trying to create, we understand that people are entitled to be judged (as Martin Luther King memorably said) on the content of their characters. What should count is what we do, not who we are. When that doesn’t happen—when any group is singled out for discriminatory treatment because of real or perceived “differences” of identity rather than on the basis of chosen behaviors—none of us is safe.
The lesson is that we all belong in every single campaign for civil rights—for African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Jews, Gays, Transgendered people, Intersexed people, and any other group being marginalized or excluded. When the haters look at difference, they just see “the other.” They don’t distinguish. The hated can’t afford to either.