Shortly before we moved here, Allan and I met a female couple from Virginia. They are raising two daughters in a small, Southern, Christian, white-bread town. They're active in church, in their daughters' schools, in community activities. They told us they've never encountered bigotry, that everyone has been open and accepting to them and their family. This runs counter to what many people outside the US think might happen in a small Virginia town.
On the other hand, I believe their acceptance hinged on looking and acting like everyone else. They live in a conventional nuclear family, neither of them "look like dykes", they go to church, they blend right in. In this case, that's truly who these women are. They aren't remaking themselves in order to conform. What about those who don't fit in so neatly?
I read an excellent magazine article on this topic in the New York Times Magazine: "The Pressure to Cover", by Kenji Yoshino. It's a long article that you might want to print and read when you time. It's adapted from a book Yoshino just published, called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.
The author uses the term "covering" to describe behaviour that will be familiar to anyone who identifies as part of a minority. (He credits the sociologist Erving Goffman with coining the word.) A famous example of covering is FDR never being seen in his wheelchair. Everyone knew he used a wheelchair, but he couldn't afford to be perceived as disabled. From the article:
As is often the case when you learn a new idea, I began to perceive covering everywhere. Leafing through a magazine, I read that Helen Keller replaced her natural eyes (one of which protruded) with brilliant blue glass ones. On the radio, I heard that Margaret Thatcher went to a voice coach to lower the pitch of her voice. Friends began to send me e-mail. Did I know that Martin Sheen was Ramon Estevez on his birth certificate, that Ben Kingsley was Krishna Bhanji, that Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch Demsky and that Jon Stewart was Jonathan Leibowitz?Yoshino goes on to list a few examples (the law records are full of them) of people who were punished for refusing to cover: a Jewish man threatened with court martial from the Air Force for wearing his yarmulke, an African American airline employee who was fired for wearing cornrows.
. . .
It was only when I looked for instances of covering in the law that I saw how lucky I had been. Civil rights case law is peopled with plaintiffs who were severely punished for daring to be openly different. Workers were fired for lapsing into Spanish in English-only workplaces, women were fired for behaving in stereotypically "feminine" ways and gay parents lost custody of their children for engaging in displays of same-sex affection. These cases revealed that far from being a parlor game, covering was the civil rights issue of our time.
In each instance, the court sided against the individual, drawing a distinction between "immutable conditions" and ones that are chosen. The airline employee was not fired for being black. That's illegal discrimination based on a condition she cannot change. But, according to the court, her employer had the right to dictate what hairstyle is considered professional. She couldn't "look too black".
Yoshino shows how the US legal system is biased towards assimilation - that famous melting pot again. He feels changing this bias is today's most important civil rights issue, and one that should be framed in terms of individual freedoms.
If the Supreme Court protects individuals against covering demands in the future, I believe it will do so by invoking the universal rights of people. I predict that if the court ever recognizes the right to speak a native language, it will protect that right as a liberty to which we are all entitled, rather than as a remedial concession granted to a particular national-origin group. If the court recognizes rights to grooming, like the right to wear cornrows, I believe it will do so under something akin to the German Constitution's right to personality rather than as a right attached to racial minorities. And I hope that if the court protects the right of gays to marry, it will do so by framing it as the right we all have to marry the person we love, rather than defending "gay marriage" as if it were a separate institution.I was a little surprised at that last statement, since advocates of same-sex marriage certainly do frame the issue in those terms. It's the anti crowd who twists it into a special-interest issue.
I think Yoshino's view nicely sums up where American culture falls in the spectrum of personal freedom. The article is here, a review of his book is here.