Mark Carson was a 32-year-old gay man in New York City, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The place is one familiar to many New Yorkers: the busy corner of 6th Avenue and 8th Street, in Greenwich Village. Just two blocks from the famous Stonewall Inn, Carson talked back to the wrong homophobe, and was shot dead last Friday night.
The expressions of outrage that followed have been both appropriate and predictable. Less predictable, at least from a Jewish point of view, have been the expressions of surprise: many people, straight and LGBT, took to the blogosophere to say how astonished they were that such violence could still be possible, in this day and age.
Really? Consider what would have happened had Carson been targeted for being Jewish, instead of being gay. Shock, outrage, and condemnation would surely pour in from all quarters. But surprise? Probably not. We Jews are used to persecution, and we see it even when it isn’t there. So when it is, it’s a confirmation of our sense of persecution, not a shock to our sense of imperviousness.
That anti-gay violence continues should not be a surprise. The advent of civil rights for African Americans did not end racial violence, still widespread nearly fifty years after the Civil Rights Act. Feminism has not ended violence against women. Indeed, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, to echo President Obama’s historic turn of phrase, legal inequality is only the tip of the iceberg. Submerged beneath it are deep-seated patterns of injustice, privilege, prejudice, and fear.
The advances in same-sex marriage, the cultural acceptance of LGBT people, and other hard-earned markers of the normalization of sexual diversity are all crucial signposts on the path to equality, and they did not come about overnight; they were, in fact, the culmination of decades of struggle. But none of them, nor all of them altogether, can uproot the roots of homophobia, which lie (among other places) within religion, culture, and psychology.
We Jews know this, I think. Yet we gays seem not to.
The predominant LGBT myth is one of unabashed assimilation, in which all enlightened people understand that sexual orientation does not predict one’s moral worth, and act accordingly. Many in the LGBT movement don’t understand, I don’t think, that in social struggles, legal equality is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
Yes, the state’s imprimatur upon animus is now being, gradually, removed. But the animus itself remains.
Carson’s murder; the other acts of violence against LGBT people in New York; and, further from the camera’s lights but more tragic and more prevalent, the spree of violence against transgender people — particularly transgender women of color, some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community — are not vestiges of bygone days we thought we’d left behind. Rather, they are a reminder that most of the work still lies ahead.
There are other things Jews have learned, over the course two centuries of legal equality coupled with persistent anti-Semitism.
We’ve learned that the real debates take place not in legislatures but in living rooms, locker rooms, and places of worship.
We’ve learned that religious leaders cannot stand on the sidelines, be they pre-Vatican II Catholic priests praying for the conversion of the Jews, or contemporary rabbis and ministers equivocating between ‘sin’ and ‘sinner.’ You’re either opening hearts or closing them, fighting hatred or abetting it. Unfortunately, neutrality is not an option.
We’ve learned that ghettos are permeable, be they in Monsey or Fire Island Pines.
We’ve learned that it’s folly to imagine that because some of us are secure, all of us are secure. Today, LGBT people in red states, in conservative religious families, in many communities of color, or in economically disadvantaged communities are all vulnerable, even though I may not be. Likewise those whose gender presentation is different from the norm, or who do not “pass,” or who are not “just like everyone else.” These are people who live in constant threat of violence and marginalization, often intersecting with other forms of oppression. Violence can strike anyone, anywhere. But it should also remind us that some people live with this fear every day.
Most of all, I think, we Jews have learned that the mission is never accomplished. Those buffeted by privilege – Jewish Republicans, wealthy gays in New York or San Francisco – can delude themselves into thinking that now that they’re “in,” the battle is won. Indeed, some have recently opined that gay organizations should shut their doors, and victory may now be declared.
But oppression is oppression, and it has been with us since the mythical days of Egypt. It does not go away simply because some former victims are now cozy and safe. This is why Jews are commanded to remember that we were once slaves: so that we remember what oppression is, and don’t forget it in our gated communities and exclusive clubs. Once, we were on the other sides of the gates.
I wouldn’t want the LGBT community to develop a Jewish persecution complex. But somewhere in between the fear that the Nazis are about to knock on the door, and the complacency that homophobia is a thing of the past, is a midpoint of wisdom. This is the place from which we understand that while the identities of the victims may change, the nature of oppression endures. And so, too, the imperative to respond.