CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." These are the founding words of our nation, born from a time of political and economic injustice, sacrifice and revolt.
These words have had the power to topple governments and break the bonds of oppression around the world. They are unequivocal about the common status that all people share with a "creator" in establishing absolute rights that cannot be guaranteed to some while conditional upon others categorically. Yet our own nation has had a very peculiar history with these foundational principles we collectively cherish and the world has so admired us for.
Just 85 years after Jefferson wrote those words our nation was torn apart over a complicated mix of issues that at its core was about some men believing they held dominion over other men based on their heritage and skin color. We as a nation have struggled with civil rights injustices based on gender, religious beliefs, race and economic status throughout our 237-year history. Yet the genius of our founding fathers was to put in place a system of governance whereby bigotry and hatred -- the notion that one man can discriminate against another based on common differences endowed by our creator -- cannot tolerated, and indeed is in many cases unlawful.
I believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights are the defining civil rights issue of my generation. Being a straight white male, why should I even care if the LGBT community is treated as equal to anyone else in our society? The answer seems obvious enough, but I was asked that question by Arthur Johnston, a co-founder of Equality Illinois, an organization working to secure, protect and defend equal rights for the LGBT community. After all, I grew up in the '60s and '70s when the vast majority of homosexuals were unwilling to be open about their sexual orientation for fear of violence or even imprisonment. We straights were unapologetic in those days, and some are still unapologetic of ridiculing, bullying, ostracizing or even acts of violence against our brothers and sisters.
The turning point for me happened during the '80s. I had finished college and was working in the design community while living in Chicago. It was my day-to-day interaction with professional gays, seeing their brilliant talents, humor, generosity and the energy they offered that broke down my own prejudices and homophobia. I was enlightened by the extraordinary contributions gay people both historically and presently had made and were making to culture. Then the AIDS epidemic hit and I saw how society and government turned their backs to the problem.
I was seeing my friends and colleagues dying before my eyes while the country turned a blind eye. I also saw them organizing and marching and standing up for their rights as U.S. citizens entitled to the same rights under the constitution as all people.
To answer Arthur's question, I told him that I saw the LGBT community as being on the front lines of civil rights, and if our society couldn't change their views, and laws, there was no stopping people with extreme political and religious views from discriminating against any class of people. That conversation took place in 1992. It took Illinois another 13 years to pass a state law to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. It was a long struggle that ultimately took a lot of other straights like me to support their basic civil rights.
Interestingly, the year that Illinois SB3186 passed was the year I met my wife and moved to West Virginia. I am proud to now call myself a West Virginian. It is a state with great people and opportunities for anyone wanting to make positive contributions to the quality of life here. There is a similar bill here that has been stuck in the Legislature, House Bill 2856 or the Employment and Housing Non Discrimination Act, or ENDHA, that I believe should become law.
A recent poll conducted by the Raleigh, N.C-based firm Public Policy Polling found that 68 percent, more than two of every three West Virginians believe it should be illegal to deny someone a job or housing based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the LGBT community is clearly an overwhelming minority of the population, the results indicate a wide plurality of us straights who support these basic civil rights. It is clearly time for all West Virginians who agree with Jefferson, that we are all equal in the eyes of the creator, and show your support for your fellow brothers and sisters, doctors and lawyers, barbers and grocers, cooks and waiters, artists and engineers, managers and laborers, etc. throughout our great state by contacting your state representatives.
Weber is a Charleston architect and current president of Covenant House, where the Board of Directors recently passed a unanimous resolution in favor of passing HB2856 in support of marriage equality for the LGBT community.