Human Rights Grow On You
August 1, 1995
An Act to Limit Protected Classes Under Maine Law:
Do you favor the changes in Maine law limiting protected classifications, in future state and local laws, to race, color, sex, physical or mental disability, religion, age, ancestry, national origin, familial status and marital status, and repealing existing laws which expand these classifications, as proposed by citizen petition?

With all the talk, you'd think there's a gay rights issue on the ballot come November. After all, the anti-human rights, pro-discrimination referendum question began in an anti-gay- rights fervor, and both sides are now focusing on what its passage would do to gay-rights laws now and in the future.

But every time I re-read the referendum question itself, I feel like I'm looking at Brand X in that spaghetti sauce commercial.

Because it's not in there.

What is not in there is any reference to gay rights, sexual orientation, or homosexuality.

I worry that voters next November, not finding what they were expecting, will decide on the spot that this bill looks harmless, and will vote in favor of it until the real gay rights question comes along.

But this referendum question is not harmless. Far from it. In fact, it covers so much uncharted territory that even those - no, particularly those - who would jump at the chance of keeping gays off the human rights protection list should vote against this issue in November.

In trying to circumvent the constitutional issues which always seem to get in the way of anti-gay-rights laws actually sticking, this referendum question says we should include no one else beyond their short list in the community of those who are protected by human rights.

No one else. Ever.

That's a pretty broad brush to use when we seem to come up with new categories of people to hate or fear on a regular basis. In the wink of an eye, just doing what you think is right, you might find yourself included in one of them.

Groups which come to mind are veterans from both Vietnam and the Gulf War (because many people think they are either crazy or sick with a strange disease), and, just recently, members of a militia or farmers who use ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

And judging by the rhetoric coming from Concerned Maine Families, the group behind the referendum, you'd also better make sure your wallet isn't too fat.

I say that because of a particularly disturbing argument put forth by CMF - that gays do not need human rights protection because they are wealthier than most.

Beyond the validity of the statement itself (opposing sides tout differing studies) is another, much more frightening, concept.

Is CMF saying that hate crimes against the wealthy are impossible? Or, more alarmingly, is it saying they are acceptable?

Tell me how that idea is different from Nazi Germany, where Jews were viewed with suspicion because of their perceived wealth and business acumen.

This scary theme turns up in other CMF statements. For instance, CMF claims 60 percent of gays vacationed overseas last year. The first reaction is to dispute the figure. After all, in a world where many gays are still closeted, where would such information possibly come from? It's not asked by travel agents, airlines or passport applications. Then where?

But the second reaction is - why is CMF making that claim in the first place? If gays are suspect because they vacation overseas, should all people who have the money to vacation overseas come under suspicion?

Is CMF really warning us that if we are wealthy, or plan to be at some time in our lives, we should prepare to suffer human rights violations in silence?

Isn't that - and this referendum - a direct attack on the American dream?

This attitude - that no one else should be protected, ever - reminds me of the young child who doesn't want a new brother or sister, because he thinks there is not enough love to go around. I feel like explaining, as parents for generations have been explaining to those young children, that human rights, like love, just grows to include new people.

Everyone deserves the respect inherent in the human rights provisions. Everyone.

When parts of our society discriminate against other parts, we first explain the rules.

"It's not nice to hit your baby brother."

When simple explanations don't work, we codify those rules with the force of the law. Expanding our human rights categories as we recognize new groups that need protection will not diminish the human rights available to everyone else.

Like stone soup, the greatness of our country is based on its diversity and the willingness of everyone to contribute what they have, however bountiful or meager. In this country, the concept of unalienable human rights is the kettle, the melting pot if you will, in which that stone soup is made.

Concerned Maine Families wants to horde a smaller pot and a predictable, unchanging recipe.

As a lifelong gardener, I want that kettle to hold an ever-expanding, variable, and nourishing stew, for an ever-growing and productive crew.

Human rights are good for you. Feast on them.