By Ellie Warren
Willamette University student
As I was coming home from school in Oregon this summer, I came across a graph. It was a colored wheel showing the legal protections for gay people by state, and the little section of the chart for Montana was almost totally blank.
The parts about marriage and adoption weren't particularly surprising to me. Those issues are well publicized, and I'm at a point where I'm thinking about grades and dating, not marriage and kids. What surprised me was the reminder of how few basic protections there are against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, not just marriage, but for housing, jobs, and from hate crimes.
At college, I have been totally out as queer for the first time in my life. It is so relieving to be able to talk with people my age without constantly avoiding pronouns and wondering if anybody noticed. It is relieving to treat my crushes as normal, silly teenage things, not some dark secret. And now, coming home to the town where I grew up, that chart was a reminder that I had to be careful about revealing my sexual orientation in job interviews and business settings.
I started looking into volunteering for the ACLU because of their work to help get a law enacted in Helena to protect gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, but honestly, that was not the only reason I decided I wanted to volunteer. The main draw for me was actually the ACLU's work on criminal justice.
Gay rights is a hard issue to distance yourself from. As society becomes more open, most people grow up seeing positive portrayals of queer people on TV. They make friends with people of different genders and sexual orientations. The issues attract attention from big names. Gay rights are important, but I also admire the ACLU’s attention to people society would rather ignore.
It is easy for people to ignore prisoners’ rights. It's not a popular issue to be seen fighting for, and society often dismisses prisoners as bad people, somehow inhuman, and puts any thought of them to the side. You don't see people talking about what it's like to have a child or parent or friend or lover in prison, what it's like to read statistics on the sexual abuse and suicide rates, or the inequities in the court system, and know that they're talking about somebody you know. Instead, if the issues are brought up, they are often treated with a vindictive laugh at those who “deserve” their fate.
To me, that is what makes the ACLU special. It fights for all of us, even when the cause isn't pretty or popular. The ACLU fights for our right to speak, and know we will be safe, to know we will be protected, even if society has decided to look away.