On Pride weekend, remember how far we’ve yet to go


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Iowa City may be the third gayest city in America, but that doesn’t mean the struggle for gay rights and acceptance is over.

This weekend, Iowa City will celebrate Pride 2011, joining cities across the country in commemorating the presidentially proclaimed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexaul, and Transgender Pride Month. Unfortunately, recent events, combined with a hostile political culture, serve to underscore the continued necessity of Pride festivities.

Last week, an openly gay man reported an attack by a stranger who called him a “f*cking faggot” while walking down Clinton Street. Iowa City seems like an unlikely place for anti-gay violence; a city and campus with a large gay community, in a state that recently legalized gay marriage, shouldn’t brook intolerance. Sadly, the acceptance and tolerance of gay people in society is still far behind what it should be even in the most tolerant places in America.

Progress has certainly been made. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas. The Varnum v. Brien decision in the Iowa Supreme Court last year was a great leap forward for equality, although the subsequently successful campaign to oust three of the judges was a small step back. Vermont and New Hampshire followed Iowa in allowing same-sex couples to marry, and a legalization bill recently passed in the New York General Assembly.

President Obama issued an executive order repealing the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. With regard to government treatment, being gay in America is a better experience now than it was a decade ago.

There’s still a long way to go, of course; same-sex marriage is only legal in a handful of states, and there’s no federal-level employment nondiscrimination legislation. Same-sex partners are explicitly banned from adopting children in four states.

But treatment under the law is not the only — or most significant — hurdle to same-sex equality in America. More concerning is the acceptance of the gay population in society. Treatment by their fellow citizens is harder to change and often more harmful to individuals. A recent Gallup Poll found that 64 percent of Americans felt that gay or lesbian relations should be legal. This number is an improvement over attitudes at the turn of the millennium but still far too low. A court decision or a bill passed in a legislature does not necessarily change the way gay people are treated by their peers.

Attitudes that promulgate intolerance can lead to more violent incidents like the one in Iowa City last week. “It becomes a twisted form of recreation,” said Karla Miller, the executive director of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program. “The vernacular is, ‘Hey let’s go beat up some queers.’ ”

More than simply encouraging tolerance in communities, we should work to change perceptions of different genders and sexual orientations. “Challenging heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is superior to all other sexual orientations) would go a long way,” said Alankaar Sharma, a visiting instructor in the UI School of Social Work who specializes in gender-based violence, diversity, and social justice.

Sharma said the goal should be to create a community that celebrates diversity and acceptance of different gender identities and sexual orientations. This issue is far more difficult than passing laws giving citizens equal treatment from the government. Thinking your gay neighbor deserves to get married isn’t the same as seeing her or him as an equal.

Events such as the alleged attack last week remind the community that the struggle for equality is fought in the hearts and minds of citizens as well as the courtroom and the state Capitol. Pride Week is an excellent time for Iowa City residents to reflect on the status of tolerance and attitudes in their own communities.

Hopefully, the current trend in societal attitudes will continue, making acts of violence motivated by bigotry a distant memory. While that goal is achievable, it won’t happen without our help.

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