What Patriotism Means to Me
Published On July 4, 2013 » By Faith Elmes » Breaking News, Opinion

Today my family and friends will gather to enjoy backyard games at picnics, carnivals rides, and evening fireworks. They will be sure to stress that we are not celebrating the ‘Fourth of July’, but Independence Day: the day in history when our nation’s forefathers declared the necessity for an independent nation, with freedoms for citizens which had yet to be seen. God Bless America!

I’ll be the first to admit, the Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. I love to get caught up in the summer excitement. Amidst all the patriotic songs, however, I can’t help but notice the lurking heteronormativity in our celebrations: the uneasiness of the community about the public appearance of an interracial couple; the gawking eyes that find their way to those who have an androgynous gender expression. As a child these were things I had grown up with. Hearing others trying to guess the sex of the odd person in front of us in the funnel cake line seemed normal. As time has gone by, my college experience has opened my eyes to how harmful these sort of judgements can be. Yet, when I bring up my concerns with others from my home community, they often seem to find my concerns silly, or worse, an attack on their lifestyle.

Similarly, when I tell others about my experiences in lobbying lawmakers for LGBT rights, I’m at times met with accusations that my actions are unpatriotic in nature – that trying to change the current system is in someway ‘un-American’. Yet, the truth is, there is nothing more patriotic than taking an active role in working to move your country forward.

A democracy is only as fair and just as the people who participate in it. When we advocate in Harrisburg, we are demonstrating how much we love our nation and the desire to do everything in our power to make it even better. Through LGBT activism, we aspire to bring our nation closer to the ideals stated in the very pledge of allegiance: liberty and justice for all.

America has a rich history of activism. The concept is far from new to us, and began with our founders forming a nation in protest of the unfair policies of British rule. Our very country was founded by a group of activists.

In the 1960’s during the heart of the Civil Right’s Movement, advocates for racial and economic justice and their allies worked together, not just to end segregation but to affirm the principles we set down in our Constitution: “Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When fighting against systematic oppression in the form of segregation, redistricting, and complex voter registration laws, these activists hoped to build a better America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. that his dream of a nation that fulfills its promise of inalienable rights was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”. Despite the sometimes hard and violent struggle, he was not working against America as the opposition thought, but for it in the purest of ideals.

As a student with a disability, I find the more recent fight for disability rights in America to be more relatable and empowering. Prior to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, people with disabilities were segregated in the public school system in a way that had nothing to do with mental ability. It was common practice to institutionalize those with disabilities without reason. The disabled population was excluded from public spaces because of a lack of accessible accommodations and deemed not useful in the workplace, leading to social isolation, and economic difficulties.

Similar to the protests and sit-ins used in the 60’s, Americans with disabilities and their allies gathered in town halls and bombarded legislators with letters encouraging them not to deregulate businesses that found providing accessible facilities a hardship.

The inclusions that the ADA granted did not just make discrimination in regard to ability illegal, but granted these citizens dignity. Problems like unemployment and lack of education that faced Americans with disabilities were no longer seen as inevitable consequences of the individual’s disability. Instead, it was recognized that societal barriers and prejudices led to lower economic class. When these barriers are removed and legislators actively work against injustice, those with disabilities have been able to find a productive place in our society.

The thousands of citizens who worked to make this legislation law, did so in the hope of creating a more inclusive environment for all our citizens. By challenging the status quo and engaging their government, advocates were able to make changes that affect nearly every American who is likely to face a temporary disability at some point in life. They did so to better themselves and help those they loved. If any anger could be found in their voices, it was out of frustration and knowing that America could do better. Likewise, the recent and often passionate calls for LGBT equality are rooted in a love for friends and family who are being treated like second class citizens.

I appreciate the privilege I have as an American citizen and know that I am blessed to wake up each morning in the country that I do. I choose to use that privilege to ensure that on our soil, humans are treated with dignity and all citizens have equal protection under the law. One of the most patriotic things a citizen can do is to be actively engaged in their community and fight to have the principles of the constitution met to their fullest extent.

About The Author

Faith is the Southwestern PA Coordinating Committee member and former Assistant Convener of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition. She is a rising Senior at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania where she has served as the President of the IUP Pride Alliance. She is from Landisburg in Perry County. Faith may be reached by email at southwesternpa@pennsec.org.

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