This time of year, being from the Land of Lincoln, I am reminded of my childhood studies. There is a story in my hometown — as there probably are Lincoln stories in most Illinois towns — that Lincoln once stayed in a hotel located just blocks from my grade school. The hotel is long gone, replaced by a drug store and then a tavern, but those of us who once attended North Elementary still drive past the corner and repeat the short “Abe Lincoln slept there…” tale.
I was schooled on the legend and the history of Lincoln: Young Abe and railsplittin’ Abe, candidate Lincoln and President Lincoln. Like many Illinois schoolchildren, I memorized his speeches, read the biographies, visited his home in Springfield. The speech recited year after year, in grade after grade, was his Gettysburg address. In the earliest grades, we dressed as Lincoln with top hats and beards made of construction paper and earned Es for “excellence” if we got past “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
In later grades, we earned marks for noticing the literary devices, diagraming the sentences, and, most importantly, understanding the meaning of each sentence. And, in those older grades, we analyzed the nation’s political, social and cultural advances on equality as we studied Lincoln’s unenlightened remarks: “There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”
Schoolchildren in the “Land of Lincoln” have learned about equality year after year after year, in grade after grade after grade. And yet, this time of year, with the commemoration of Lincoln’s birthday, I am reminded of how many children grow up and forget what they learned about equality. I have conversations with friends and extended family, colleagues and neighbors, and what I hear over and over again is an expressed fear that achieving equality will result in those who have, having less. We are schooled on the value of equality, but we grow up to strive for privilege, we want more than the next person, and think we are better if we have while others have not. We regress to that time seven score and 11 years ago when it was commonly held, as Lincoln said, “there must be the position of superior and inferior.”
Adults think in these terms when it comes to commodities, from McIntosh apples to Apple MacBooks. And adults think in these terms when it comes to rights and benefits. It’s important to understand this as we continue our push for equality — the state of being equal in status, rights and opportunities. We need to address the true fear people have — the fear is not that same-sex marriage threatens the foundation of American society, but that extending marriage rights to more people, Gay people, existing marriages have less value, less meaning.
We need to remind people of the lessons they learned about equality, that we cannot have equality when we legalize exclusion from rights and benefits. We need to point out that there is not a limited number of a certain right to go around and no one is going to come up short. We need to point out to people that a straight person’s marriage is not devalued because a Gay person also is married.
Evan Wolfson, a longtime leader in the push for the freedom to marry, points to a time when women were barred from practicing law, but that eventually the nation moved past that exclusionary law and “the sky didn’t fall.” Nor did a lawyer cease to be a lawyer. And when same-sex marriage is legal in the 50 states and the territories, when the federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed, marriage will not cease to be marriage.
(Lisa Neff is a columnist for 365Gay.com from which this is reprinted.)
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