Despite progress that’s been made in the struggle for LGBT rights, feminism and against racism, it still often feels as if the history of gays, people of color, women and other marginalized groups remains hidden or disrespected. Too frequently, we look at textbooks, the media or commemorative ceremonies, and wonder: where are the people like me? Why are our contributions ignored and how long will our sexuality be expurgated?
Thankfully, stellar examples of this hidden history were brought to light on Nov. 20 when President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, to feminist leader and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem and posthumously to Bayard Rustin, an openly gay key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and Sally Ride, a lesbian and the first woman astronaut. In an historic first, at the White House ceremony, same-sex partners (Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle and Ride’s partner Tam O’Shaughnessy) accepted the distinguished medals.
As I caught the news on this year’s Medal of Freedom winners (which included former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey), I felt as if two of our queer heroes and one of our allies were being vividly painted on the mural of history.
Rustin, who lived from 1910 to 1987, was a close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. “Openly gay at a time when many had to hide who they loved,” Obama said of Rustin, “his unwavering belief that we are all equal members of a single human family took him from his first freedom ride to the LGBT rights movement.”
Thanks to Ride’s groundbreaking space voyage, LGBT kids know, that they, too, can reach for the stars. By blasting through the stratospheric glass ceiling, Obama said of Ride, she inspired girls to “pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”
Obama lauded Steinem’s advocacy for “lasting political and social change in America and abroad” and for “inspiring us all to take up the cause of reaching for a more just tomorrow.”
Why should the LGBT community be pleased that Steinem was among the Medal recipients? Because Steinem is an LGBT ally and the feminist and LGBT movements have much in common from employment discrimination to sexual oppression. True, in its early years, the 2nd wave feminist movement was often homophobic, and even now, feminism is too often geared toward white, middle and upper-middle class, straight women. Yet Steinem is a staunch LGBT rights supporter who sees sexism, racism and homophobia as intertwined.
Listening to Steinem, 79, speak on Nov. 18 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., her commitment to fighting injustice and creating a just world was a shot of Red Bull to those of us steeped in cynicism. Her Medal of Freedom belongs to everyone in the women’s movement, and “women’s issues are not separate from economic issues,” Steinem said.
Fewer Americans support marriage equality than people in other nations, Steinem noted.
The right to have an abortion is a human right, she said. “For men and women the power of the state must stop at our skins,” she added.
“The same groups oppose all forms of sexual expression that do not end in contraception,” Steinem said in a telling comment on oppressive views of reproductive freedom and LGBT people.
Violence against women has reached its global peak, she said, adding that the level of this violence is a “foremost indicator of a repressive society.”
Knowing history is important, Steinem said, but “getting mad” at injustice in the present is more important than learning feminist history. Gratitude for history never got her to “vote for anything,” she added.
Of course, we mustn’t become so obsessed with history that we disengage from work that needs to be done now. But celebrating and learning about the historic contributions of Rustin, Ride and Steinem will help us understand and meet our present challenges.