"If we feel afraid, it isn't what we don't know that frightens us, it's what we think we do know."
-- Allan G. Johnson in Power, Privilege, and Difference
Though a number of published research studies surfaced in reputable medical journals during the mid-1980s finding that the risk of HIV transmission to people living in close quarters and in non-sexual contact with people with HIV/AIDS was minimal to nonexistent, in 1985, the principal and school board of Western Middle School in Russiaville, Indiana, nevertheless, refused admittance of 14-year-old Ryan White following tremendous pressure from fearful and outraged parents and faculty after Ryan's diagnosis as HIV-positive became widely known.
After Ryan and his family fought a long and difficult battle to have him readmitted, a Circuit Court judge dissolved a restraining order, and Ryan returned to school. The White family received death threats, and a number of parents pulled their children and organized an alternative school. But that was then. We know better than that today, especially since 1990 when the Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers HIV-related discrimination.
I still remember a time in our country when people looked askance at interracial couples walking together down the boulevard, and when a number of states retained antiquated laws criminalizing sexual relations and marriage between individuals of differing so-called "races." But that was then. We know better than that today, especially since 1967 when the United States Supreme Court ruled these laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia.
And I also still remember a time in our country when proprietors of retail stores and restaurants, landlords of rental properties, and employers refused service, housing, and jobs to people perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and to same-sex couples. But that was then. We know better than that today, especially since approximately half of the states include LGBT people in their list of enumerated categories within anti-discrimination statutes.
But wait! Recent news accounts may prove me wrong. Maybe we don't know better than that today. Maybe we don't, in fact, know our history!
Officials at the Milton Hershey School, a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, recently refused to admit a fully qualified 13-year-old boy over his HIV-positive status. Talking with ABC News, Milton Hershey spokesperson, Connie McNamera, justified the school's decision: "We have to balance his rights and interests with our obligation to provide for the health and safety of other students, and this meets a direct threat." The AIDS Law Project filed suit in Philadelphia District Court claiming the school has violated the ADA.
The congregation of Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, Kentucky voted recently to ban interracial couples from joining the church after Stella Harville, 24 and daughter of the secretary of this all-white church congregation, brought her fiancée, Ticha Chikuni, 28 and native of Zimbabwe, to services where they sang hymns and played piano for those assembled. According to Stella, things seemed to go well until the pastor, Melvin Thompson, told Chikuni that he could not sing any more. The following week, Stella's parents, Cathy and Dean Harville, who had been members of the Church for decades, met with Thompson, who expressed to them that a number of congregants threatened to walk out if Chikuni sang again. According to ABC News, when Cathy asked the pastor who were these people, Thompson replied, "Me, for one," and then he said, "The best thing [Stella] can do is take him back where she found him."
Two women recently entered Victoria Childress' home bake shop in Des Moines, Iowa for a taste-testing appointment for their wedding cake. Childress inquired who was getting married? A member of the couple, Janelle Sievers, told the baker that they were, she and her partner Tina Vodraska. Upon hearing this, Childress informed the couple, according to published accounts: "I'll tell you I'm a Christian, and I do have convictions. I'm sorry to tell you, but I'm not going to be able to do your cake." Interviewed by a reporter for local TV station KCCI, Childress gave her reasons: "I didn't do the cake because of my convictions for their lifestyle. It is my right as a business owner....[I]t's to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer [to] him for." Janelle and Tina have yet to decide whether they will file a civil law suit.
I have heard some people refer to our current era as one in which HIV/AIDS and the discrimination surrounding it no longer impose major physical and social barriers. Since the election of Barack Obama, some people refer to these times as "post-racial," where racism no longer limits people from achieving their potential. And I have heard people saying that same-sex attractions, which was once referred to as "the love that dare not speak its name" has turned into "the love that won't shut up."
Though we have passed laws, conducted educational and diversity training sessions, and though times may have changed somewhat for the better, as the proverb goes, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."
In reality, we still live in a society in which dominant groups continue to have the power and privilege to define and restrict minority "others." Unfortunately, therefore, the multiple forms of oppression, including ableism, racism, and heterosexism remain not only alive, but fully functioning.