This weekend we celebrate July 4 with rounds of festivities marking our nation’s 234 years of independence.
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 (LGBTQ) Americans.
While it is true that the House of Representatives voted to repeal former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy that bars LGBTQ servicemembers from serving openly in the military last month, and on the same day last month the House passed to repeal DADT, as did the Senate Armed Services Committee, the plight of our LGBTQ servicemembers remained unchanged.
While it’s true that the U.S. comprises fifty states, only five states allow same-sex marriages since 2004 — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut, Iowa, and the District of Columbia. And these marriages are not recognized federally. Thirty-six states have statutes on the books prohibiting same-sex marriage, including some that also have constitutional bans. And states like New York only recognize marriages by same-sex couples legally performed elsewhere.
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 (1818–1895) 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. But one of our community’s greatest moments of patriotism was the Stonewall Riots of June 27–29, 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 heterosexist and homophobic oppressions, we are tied to an illustrious history of fighting for freedom in this country.
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.
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 servicemembers endanger “unit cohesion.”
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 deceased Reverend Jerry Falwell did, and Sarah Palin now does, you have a form of hyperpatriotism where the concepts of “God, guns, and glory” sadly shape the American landscape.
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.”
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.