‘Special Rights’ Are Critical to Equality

Last evening, I had the experience of sitting in on the Roeland Park city council meeting as it heard from multiple members of the public speaking in favor of a non-discrimination policy that would protect employees in and citizens of Roeland Park against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In addition to the overwhelming majority of supporters, a minority of dissenters came up to speak. One, in particular, stuck in my mind: a man came up and spoke of a hypothetical situation wherein his three sons (none of whom, he noted, were gay) were with a friend who was gay and all four were attacked. He then asked: why does their gay friend need “special rights”? Aren’t we equally protected under the law?

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the increased risk a gay man faces of violence merely for his sexual orientation and focus on the more fundamental thought here: the idea that everyone, enjoying equal protection (or vulnerability) according to the letter of the law, enjoys “equal rights”.

Yes, according to the letter of the law, I am vulnerable to being fired for using the restroom that aligns with my gender (male, men’s room). Yes, according to the letter of the law, I am vulnerable to being denied service at a restaurant for being attracted to the people I am (women, in this case). However, trans people and people who are attracted to members of the same sex, although they have the same rights as written in our laws, do not have the same protections that are afforded me by the happenstance of gender identity and sexual orientation – in this, although the letter of the law superficially protects us equally, we are, in actuality, unequally protected when accounting for the circumstances of our society.

We cannot let ourselves be trapped by the idea that the law is a perfect reflection of social conditions; when we codify special protections into law for individuals, it is not to elevate them above others who do not fall under these special protections, but, instead, it is a reflection of the inherent disadvantages interwoven into the system from which we would seek to explicitly protect someone – whether that system is our government, their place of employment, their housing, or any other component of our society.

As such, when we work to write into law to protect individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, sex, and so many other factors, it isn’t to imply that the individuals who would be protected are incapable of achieving greatness on their own, but is instead to reflect that there are factors beyond their control that set the odds against them for reasons that are neither their fault nor cause for them to receive anything but a fair chance to flourish. To not do this is to let the false narrative brought by privilege blind us into the false belief that, simply because we, personally, may not suffer discrimination, no one else must face difficulties in their daily lives.

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