Originally published in The Advocate, July 3, 2006.
As we celebrate our nation, we must not allow its core principles—independence, freedom, and justice—to become desecrated by bigotry and hatred. True patriots from Patrick Henry to Martin Luther King Jr. have always embraced difference and dissent.
This month we celebrate July 4 with rounds of festivities marking our nation’s 230 years of independence. But since September 11, 2001, all Americans have seen a gradual erosion of their civil liberties as requisite acts of patriotism.
To celebrate Independence Day, people sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” recite the Pledge of Allegiance, reenact the Continental Congress of 1776, or simply watch reproductions of the “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air.” All this is done on a grander and more commercialized scale to show ourselves and the world our mettle in the face of terrorism.
But this country’s need to showcase her indomitable spirit of heroism continues to come at the expense of basic freedoms and protections denied to us lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans as we continue to fight for marriage equality, immigration reform, adoption rights, and yes, expressions of religious freedom in our communities of faith. And as a first-world nation, U.S. legal protections of LGBTQ citizens fall woefully short of those in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Western Europe.
Furthermore, cheap political debates to write discrimination into the Constitution, like the amendment to ban same-sex marriage, open the door not only to the abridgments of our civil liberties, but the abridgment of the civil liberties of all Americans.
This year does not, however, mark the first time our Independence Day celebrations have overlooked a sector of the population. I am reminded, for example, of the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas (1818â€“1895) and his historic speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” To a country in the throes of slavery, he said, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?… I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us…. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
As LGBTQ Americans, our patriotism is not recognized or is seen as antiestablishment and un-American. But what we struggle for in this country are the core principles in American democracy stated in the Declaration of Independence: “That all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One of our community’s greatest moments of patriotism in this last century was the Stonewall Riots of June 27â€“29, 1969, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. We celebrate their heroism every day as out-of-the-closet people who are intentionally visible in various facets of American life. And because of our continued acts of social protest against heterosexism and homophobia, we are tied to an illustrious history of fighting for freedom in this country.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech on December 5, 1955: “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
When patriotism is narrowly defined, however, it can only be accepted and exhibited within the constraints of its own intolerance, like the passing of the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” also known as the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which has us all living in a police state.
With this form of patriotism, demagogues emerge as patriots espousing an unconditional love for a democratic America. But their love is thwarted, if not contradicted, by their homophobic actions toward LGBTQ Americans, like the military’s belief that openly queer service members endanger “unit cohesion.” This not only maintains a policy of segregation but also fosters one of queer hatred.
When the demagogues’ model of patriotism is infused with conservative or fundamentalist tenets of Christianity, this form of patriotism functions like a religion with its litanies of dos and don’ts. So Fourth of July celebrations have their commandments that must be upheld in the name of patriotism in the same manner that Sunday worship must be upheld in the name of God.
And when people meld religion with patriotism, like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the Reverend Pat Robertson, and George W. Bush do, you have a form of hyperpatriotism where the concepts of “God, guns, and glory” sadly shape the American landscape. For the Falwells and Robertsons in our lives, America’s core principles, like independence, freedom, and justice, become desecrated by their religiosity fraught with bigotry and hatred, and by a form of patriotism within their narrow view of the world.
One of our most famous American heroes is Patrick Henry, who we all know for his famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” in his speech on March 23, 1775, in which he explained how he views himself as the “other.” “No man thinks more highly than I do of patriotism…. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve.”
As LGBTQ people, we are unquestionably seen as the “other.” And like Henry, we must speak our sentiments freely and without reserve. Our patriotism, shown in the form of pride celebrations and social protests, is no less American than Fourth of July extravaganzas. In fact, all acts of celebrating the United States by way of fighting for civil rights and equal justice are indeed American and are inextricably linked to our core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.