Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Knee jerk reactions

So I have to confess something that isn't very nice about myself. Which is the knee-jerk reaction I have when I hear a male Southern voice.

And that knee-jerk reaction is that with the voice comes an assumption I have that the person speaking holds conservative, possibly racist, potentially homophobic viewpoints.

It is something I began to notice about myself when I moved "South" a few years ago. You can imagine my surprise and chagrin upon realizing that almost EVERY man I encountered at Southern U. and in my nice college town had a Southern accent and thus was causing me to have this knee jerk reaction that forced me to deal with the fact that I was probably WRONG at least half the time.

In other words, it's almost as if there was a higher power at work that was forcing me to deal with a secret prejudice I had against white Southern men (because, lets face it, that's really the demographic I'm talking about--black Southern men I don't assume to be racist, and while they could be and might be homophobic, it's really the white Southern men who trigger my racial paranoia).

I've been dealing with my knee jerk reactions--forced to really because I can't live hear for over five years and NOT realize that there are many white Southern men who are not racist and homophobic, even when I do encounter examples who live up to my sense of racial hypochondria.

But I am reminded of my knee jerk reaction because in the car listening to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" I heard the dulcet tones of a male Southern accent beginning to speak about the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy and I ASSUMED that the person belonging to the voice was advocating on behalf of this policy that forces queer military men and women to stay in the closet.

But lo and behold--I WAS WRONG. Because the voice belonged to retired Rear Admiral James Barnett, and he spoke in powerful and eloquent terms about the dehumanizing effects of this policy on gay and lesbian soldiers--and had some very strong arguments for why the military needs to abolish "Don't ask, don't tell" -- and he, along with 103 other retired military leaders, recently signed an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama asking him to get rid of this intolerant policy:

We – the undersigned -- respectfully call for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Those of us endorsing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish. Scholarly data shows there are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States today as well as 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in our armed forces. They have served our nation honorably. We support the recent comments of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, who has concluded that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would not harm and would indeed help our armed forces. As is the case with Great Britain, Israel, and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy.

For the think tank that helped produce this letter and a list of the 104 signatories, click here.

For the "Talk of the Nation" interview with retired Rear Admiral James Barnett, click here.

Once again, my knee jerk reaction is proven wrong. Once again, I try to be the change that I want to see in the world by recognizing and owning my own internalized prejudice.

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