Charles: When discomfort makes discrimination legal

Imagine living in a country where your right to work, live peaceably, or even exist is subject to the whims of the authoritarian regime. Imagine having your personhood stripped away because someone else is uncomfortable with who you are, how you look, how you worship, or who you love. 

Imagine having to stress and struggle every day of your life just to — be.

Despite being a black woman in a country that was founded to favor rich white men, I can’t imagine the added stress of being able to be fired, legally, because of my sexual orientation, or a change in my gender identity.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not troubled by it.

The Supreme Court’s weigh-in on whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also provides protection to citizens who happen to be lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, will eventually tell who we really are as a nation. And if we are decent human beings.

Although sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t on people’s radar when the law was passed to stop discrimination against women and people of color, protection for all of us, no matter who we are, should be a no-brainer. I am discouraged that it isn’t.

Forgive this digression, but something that was said by a 6-year-old keeps coming back to me.

A few years ago I had to have a tooth removed. It was an adult canine that never came down, and once it started to move in the wrong direction, I had to go to an oral surgeon. He pumped me full of as much Novocaine as allowable by law, then set to work, cutting through the gum and breaking up the tooth to take it out piece by piece. This was the most horrific experience I ever had, and I’ve had multiple surgeries in my life, including birth.

I then had to drive home and pick up my daughter on the way from after-school care. She had dinner and I went to bed. My husband had a wake to go to that evening, so she was my caretaker. In the meantime, in the two-three hours she watched over me, my face ballooned into something unrecognizable. I looked as if I had gone a full 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali.

When I saw a mirror, I cried (granted, the Novocaine had worn off and I was also in excruciating pain). My daughter held me and said in the wisdom only a first-grader could impart: “It’s OK, Mommy, you’re still you on the inside.”

That’s it, that’s my digression — and my point.

Our friends, co-workers, and loved ones are still who they are on the inside, even when we find out that they love someone of the same gender, or are nonbinary, or transgender. They are still worthy of love, respect, and dignity.

We, as a nation, have always had problems with differences. We’re one of the most diverse nations in the world, yet we shudder to embrace the opportunities that come with learning about those differences. We instead embrace fear and discomfort.

But our discomfort shouldn’t justify discrimination.

When you meet someone who is wildly, or mildly different from what you consider your norms, you may feel uncomfortable. You may become anxious that you’ll say the wrong thing, or make a stupid offensive joke, or go on a long tangential story about the last (gay, black, Muslim, transgender, nonbinary) person you knew, but their orientation had absolutely nothing to do with the gist of the story. Later on, you’ll replay the conversation in your head and feel stupid.

Chances are, most of us have those cringe-worthy memories.

But just because you did, or said, or thought something stupid, doesn’t mean someone else should suffer from your mortification.

The Supreme Court will be deciding if it is OK to take away someone else’s rights because other people are uncomfortable.

The ruling may run along the lines of a narrow interpretation of the word “sex,” but make no mistake. This is about us being discomforted by the way another human being presents him, her, or themselves. And others deciding that it’s OK for us to make them feel less than human because they’re not like us.

On the inside, where it counts, we really are all the same.

Civil rights are just that. When we start deciding that it’s OK to deny someone work or housing or services, because we don’t like who they are, we’re stripping away not only their dignity, but ours too.

And we’re becoming less humane — and less human.


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