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Austin Cline

Civil Rights, Civil Equality: Democracy Requires Full, Equal Humanity (Book Notes: Hiding from Humanity)

By April 8, 2006

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Political equality requires human equality - when one group of citizens is treated as inferior on a basic human level, then it's impossible for them to be truly equal on a political level. Democracy, which is based upon political equality, thus cannot fully exist then citizens are denied full human equality. That's what happens when women, gays, or others are forced to hide or deny themselves. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law

In Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Martha C. Nussbaum writes:

[Anne] Hollander plausibly argues that a precondition of genuine democracy was the recognition of women’s equally human bodies; and that this, in turn, required the overturning of puritanical conventions in dress, allowing women to show their legs. Our system of personal liberty does not in fact say that we will protect women’s fantasies on the inside only at the price of making them hide their bodies on the outside.

It may not be immediately obvious, but when women are denied the ability to reveal themselves publicly in ways that are readily accorded to men, they are also being denied the same respect and equality that is being accorded to men. This was the case when women were denied the ability to wear pants or even shorts; it’s currently the case in Muslim societies where women are forced to cover up in extreme ways.

When women’s bodies are treated as unequal, then it’s impossible to treat women themselves as equal — the relationship between the person and their body is simply too strong to pretend otherwise. When women are unable to move freely through public spaces in the same ways that men are able to do so, then their basic equality is being denied — even when the restrictions are implemented on the premise of “protecting” women. If women were truly equal, they wouldn’t be treated as though they needed constant protection not afforded to men. Equality and respect don’t mean anything if they don’t include treating people like adults.

These days, however, we do make that demand of gays and lesbians — that is, when we even go so far as to protect their consensual acts in private. Yet it seems wrong to think that society will collapse if gays and lesbians openly announce their sexuality, or even hold hands on the street in ways now acceptable among heterosexuals. One even knows places in which these things happen, and yet personal liberty has not altogether vanished. One might think that, as with female trousers, so here: what genuine democracy requires is that all citizens should be able to demonstrate their full and equal humanity.

Gays aren’t forced to cover their bodies in ways expected of heterosexuals, but they are expected to conceal and/or deny aspects of their lives which heterosexuals are able to reveal as a matter of course: their basic sexual orientation and what that means. Heterosexuals have the freedom to hold hands, hug, kiss, and engage in other expressions of intimacy without a second thought; gays, however, are often denied this liberty and can be accused of “forcing” themselves on other for engaging in such basic actions.

By denying gays to act in ways that are routinely accepted from heterosexuals, and by insisting that gays “conceal” themselves when in public, the basic equality of gays as human beings is being denied. This is incompatible with a truly democratic system where the human equality of all citizens is a prerequisite for the functioning of civic, political equality. Then again, perhaps that’s part of the point behind insisting that gays, women, and others conceal themselves in various ways.


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