In the past two decades that I have been teaching, I have noticed a distinct shift in my students’ opinions about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
From being a topic discussed with some degree of awkwardness or suppressed altogether, LGBT concerns are now out in the open and no longer regarded with disdain.
Last year, for example, the United States (US) Supreme Court’s decision to allow gay marriages was followed by a steady stream of rainbow profile pictures in my Facebook newsfeed, 80% of which comprises posts from current and former students.
Even though the US ruling has no bearing on Malaysian laws, many young people I know were elated because it signalled an overt acceptance of an inalienable right to love whomever one chooses.
The positive response from my students on the issue is symptomatic of a growing acceptance of LGBT people and a tacit acknowledgement of their human rights.
Young people today are no longer cowed by the narrow views of generations past and prefer to make up their own minds about what they think is acceptable and just.
Thanks in part to the Internet, which has afforded unprecedented access to the full scope of LGBT lives and struggles, many young Malaysians I know today would have no problems working, socialising and living under the same roof with their LGBT friends.
Watching the movie Freeheld (2015) recently, it occurred to me that this change of mindset about LGBT people among the young needs to be commensurate with changes in the workplaces of the future.
If future employers are keen to hire members of Generation Z or millennials, there is no sidestepping the issue of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
Freeheld, a film version of the Oscar-winning documentary of the same name, is an uncompromising examination of how real life police lieutenant Laurel Hester (played by Julianne Moore) battled the governing board members of Ocean County (called “freeholders”) in 2004 for the right to assign her pension benefits to her legal domestic partner, Stacie Andree (played by Ellen Page).
After having served 23 years in the police force, risking life and limb as often as her male colleagues, Laurel was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; however, unlike her heterosexual colleagues who were able to pass on their pension benefits to their spouse upon death, Laurel was not allowed to do so.
Within a year and with the support of her fellow officers, the Ocean County community, LGBT rights activists and strong public pressure, Laurel won her case shortly before her demise.
Listening to the arguments presented by the freeholders, I was struck by the untenable and self-serving logic of their defence.
It reminded me of similar rhetoric resplendent in the news of late where opponents of equality appear not to understand the principles of non-discrimination.
In the film, when Laurel Hester asserts:
“I never ask for special treatment, only equality,” she is echoing the sentiments of millions of disenfranchised employees across the globe who have put in their hours of labour and only ask for what is rightfully theirs.
Laurel’s pension is not a bonus pay-out subject to the whims of her employer; rather, it is money she has rightfully earned through her own efforts and willingness to do her job like any other male cop. As such, it is also her right to assign her pension to whomever she pleases.
Despite Laurel Hester’s victory in the end, the movie never puts her on a pedestal or elevates her to hero status.
She is an inspiration to be sure but Freeheld is a movie that gives plenty of screen time to the many people who believed in Laurel’s cause and fought to redress what they deemed to be a great wrong in this day and age.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from this film, it is this:
When leadership fails to uphold the tenets upon which it is founded, regular folk will not stand by to acquiesce to hypocrisy and injustice. If leaders do not lead by example, in time, ordinary folk will make an example of them.
In the only speech she gives throughout the film, Stacie Andree says it so plainly that we would be remiss not to reflect on our collective common humanity:
“We’re just average people, with a house and dog. We pay taxes. We’re not perfect and we have our differences and disagreements.”
In short, we are very much like you even though we are not exactly the same.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the evolving wisdom of many of my students with regards to the LGBT issue. Our identity is shaped not by our sexual orientation per se but by our sense of compassion and acceptance of the different facets that make us human.
And our humanity is defined by how we enact our compassion and acceptance in our daily lives, among colleagues and friends, among peers and elders, and indeed, between and among employers and employees, whether straight, L, G, B or T.