Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks on election night when I heard Katie Couric call Barack Obama our next president. When I was a little girl growing up in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, I never dreamt a man of color would be the leader of the free world. I felt that our nation was voting for hope, love and change.
My tears of joy turned into sadness when I learned that Proposition 8, the ballot measure to overturn the California Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage, overwhelmingly passed.
I felt disbelief when exit polls showed that African Americans and Latinos backed Proposition 8 in high numbers. Seven in 10 black voters supported Proposition 8 while more than half of Latino voters supported the measure.
I cannot understand why people, especially those who have been treated unfairly, such as African Americans whose ancestors were slaves in this country or Latinos who are often discriminated against, could support a measure based on hate and inequality. In fact, anyone who has ever been discriminated against because of race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender and first language should not have supported Proposition 8, which denies gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community members their human right to legally marry.
There are those who think the oppression of people of color and gays are two different things. Those African Americans who voted yes on Proposition 8 have never accepted the claims of the GLBT rights movement that the gay rights struggle was equivalent to their struggle, or heir to the black civil rights movement. They argue that the history of the two movements is far too different.
For me the two struggles are the same. I would like us to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King got it, so why can’t we? Proposition 8 is about the dominant-in-power group deciding the rights of an oppressed group based upon hate. It is about allowing hate to dictate the decisions we make as a nation. I see the same blood, sweat and tears, and desire for equality in both the black civil rights and gay rights movements.
During the spring I dated a Jewish man. He saw himself as a person of color because with his olive skin, dark hair and dark eyes he did not look like your typical Minnesotan. We bonded during late-night discussions about the persecuting of our people: the Hmong in China and Laos, and Jews in Germany and Russia. Everything was great until one day he told me he hated gays. He told me this as though he was telling me what he ate for breakfast. He said something like, “I had eggs over easy and I hate gays.” When I told him that his hatred of gays seriously jeopardized our romance, he flatly told me he didn’t care because it was unnatural for a man to be with a man. I reminded him that I worked for a higher education system as a diversity director. He countered and said he thought that was my day job and after work I had a different attitude about gays. I also reminded him that I had gay friends. When he called me a homo-lover, I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe somebody who understood the history of Hmong persecution and wanted to rid the world of all Jewish stereotypes could have such venom for GLBT community members.
Just last week I met a colleague who worked at a local college as the disability director. He was passionate about the disability cause and was willing to accommodate students with disabilities to foster their success, but he believes that students whose first language is not English don’t deserve the same chance for success as students with disability. He believes a person whose first language is not English had a choice to learn English and learn it well, without an accent, while a person with disability had no choice but to live with her or his disability.
As a person whose first language is not English, I was greatly insulted. First of all, there is nothing wrong with having an accent. Second, I would never want to lose my first language. I take great pride in speaking Hmong.
I want us to remember what it felt like to be picked on or laughed at, what it felt like to be an outsider at a family gathering, church, school or work. None of us has felt comfortable all the time. I hope we can all remember that feeling of being hurt and try to love our community members-all of them.
Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. She is a poet, playwright and community activist.