Rebecca Juro

History Matters...

Filed By Rebecca Juro | September 07, 2007 12:15 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: America, civil rights, GLBT, LGBT, LGBT history, workplace discrimination

And not just our own.

I'd promised Bil that I'd post something a few days ago, but I never quite got around to it. I did have a good excuse, though. Not only that, but the reason I wasn't able to post then gave me a great idea for something to post on today.

My grandmother, 94 years young, was taken to the hospital because she'd had some heart palpitations. Of course, with someone as elderly as Grandma, such events are taken quite seriously. You just never know. So, my Mom and I went into Brooklyn to see her, and were relieved to find her with her usual feisty attitude in full bloom. We're still waiting for the results of some tests, but we were certainly encouraged to hear that the technician who performed her echocardiogram told her that her heart appeared as strong as ever and told her "Happy 100th birthday." Needless to say, even though we still don't have all the answers, we went home feeling much better.

It occurs to me that while we frequently document and honor our own community history, many of us fail to remember that the story really begins long before gay or transgender civil rights were considered goals that could be credibly advocated for, even before the very labels we popularly define ourselves with today were coined, much incorporated into popular usage.

My grandparents were the first generation of either side of my family born in the United States. My great-grandmother, my grandfather's mother, immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1910. She was put on a ship at the age of ten by Russian Jewish parents who wanted her to escape the persecution of the Kossacks.

My grandparents were a young married couple during the Depression Era, and my grandfather and his brother, my Uncle Paul, worked in the shoe industry. One of Brooklyn's first shoe industry unions was formed by my grandfather and a group of men who worked in the industry in the basement of the Brooklyn brownstone where my grandparents lived most of their married lives and raised their family.

As is usually the case with unions, these working men wanted good jobs, good lives, and fair wages for themselves and their families, and they banded together to work toward making it happen. It was a time when hiring blacks for such jobs was often still considered inconceivable, when simply being known as a Jew could put an end to one's career goals. When my Uncle Paul came back from World War II, he and my grandfather opened their own store, a family shoe store that's still around today, over sixty years later, and still family-run, by my cousin Richard (my Mom and Grandmother still call him Dickie, but being from the third US-born generation of our family, I'll do him the favor of calling him by his preferred, given name) since Uncle Paul recently passed on at the age of eighty-four.

They came from an era that seems distant and far removed from so much of what we know as modern America. When Uncle Paul died, the local newspaper carried letters from people who'd not only been fitted for their own first pairs of shoes in his store, but who had carried on that tradition by bringing their own children to him for their first pairs. They wrote of Futter Brothers Shoes as being a safe place for them growing up, where local kids could always come in and ask to use the phone to call home, and remembered my uncle as the kind of man who understood his responsibility to the community of Millburn, New Jersey as a local merchant not only to provide high-quality goods at a fair price, but also as a man who gave back to that community by being there as a safe haven and a responsible adult presence in the heart of the community that kept him in business.

Recently, my Mom and I went to the store for our own shoes, as we always have, and found the place all but empty of customers. It seems that a lot of the customers who used to be the mainstay of the store's business now buy a lot of their shoes at the big-name discount stores. The store, now called Futter Shoes, seems more and more an anachronism these days. Grandma is one of the last of our family's first generation born in this country, a generation that grew up with not a sense of entitlement but with the belief that the American dream was within their grasp if they worked hard and followed the rules.

It's all so different in some ways, but in others perhaps not as much as we tend to think. Those of my generation, born during the era of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam war, and later generations seem to often forget that there haven't always been legally-protected civil rights for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, much less sexual and gender minorities. These protections, which now seem so intrinsic to American law as to be virtually invisible to some of us, had to be fought for and won, not only in Washington, DC, but also in American society and culture. Real acceptance of these minority groups didn't happen overnight, not even once those rights were formally protected in the body of our country's laws. It wasn't only legal, political acceptance of their basic equality and treatment in the laws of our country which needed to achieved, but also their social acceptance as equals in the greater community that is America.

As it happened back then, we too are winning, slowly, but arguably considerably more quickly than those who have fought these kinds of battles before us. Once ENDA and the hate crimes bill become law, it will be a major milestone, but by no means the end of our struggle. Just as racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination continue to exist and perhaps even still flourish in some quarters today despite being declared illegal under the law in those aspects of American life constitutionally within its purview, so too will we face the same reality once our own rights become protected under federal law.

And yet, we can now look back at our history, remember how it was for our parents, grandparents, and great-parents, and take heart, knowing that we have a brighter future ahead of us. When we take a longer view of history, we begin to understand that, as Grandma likes to tell me when I start spouting off to her about LGBT civil rights advocacy, these things take time. As right as I know she is when she says it, though, I like to respond by saying that I just hope I'm not as old as she is before it happens. One thing I'm happy that we both seem to agree on is that it seems less and less likely all the time that I will be.

It's easy to be angry, and it's important to be. Anger inspires activism, and activism inspires change for the better. Anger and dissatisfaction with the the present are essential parts of effective activism, but so too are hope, diligence, and a never-fading belief that tomorrow will be a better day for all of us. As we draw ever closer to achieving our social and political goals, let's make sure we never forget the most important lesson we've been taught by those who've gone before us, those who persevered, survived, and succeeded through greater trials than many of us have ever experienced or perhaps even imagined:

Anger is a powerful and necessary catalyst in changing the present, but it's hope, faith, and hard work which truly endure and will most reliably lead us toward a better and lasting future.

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great piece--i miss my grandma every day (she's of that same group as yours). What gets me tho, is that we're going backwards so fast legally and rightswise even as we advance socially and in visibility.

From state constitutional amendments to the supreme court to the lack of support (even talk, let alone action) by the officials we vote for, we're losing all over the place--and the christian right is not ever giving up. School boards, local govts, corporate policies, etc--all being regressed. Just as Brown vs. Bd of Ed was turned on its head, these are closing or being reversed as part of false claims of "Christian discrimination" since they can't be bigots anymore like they want to. They're pouring millions into fighting ENDA right now.