President Obama recently made a historic pledge on gay rights that moved our country closer to that original promise of "liberty and justice for all."
In my Washington, D.C., neighborhood, gays are not only "out" but out and about: Same-sex couples hold hands on the street and laugh and chat at tables in restaurants. Only a mean soul could begrudge them the joy of being "de-closeted" on a fine autumn evening. And only a dead soul could wish to deny them the basic rights that most of us take for granted.
Washington is where those who feel discriminated against and exploited come to make their case on the streets and in the halls of Congress. You can pop down to Lafayette Park and march with Iranian families protesting their government or visit the National Mall and talk to veterans demanding better care for soldiers. The Capitol has witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.'s massesand Vietnam War protesters.
Twenty years ago, deaf students at Gallaudet University went on strike, demanding a deaf president. When they won, a student wrote, "When slaves rose up against their masters, whites weren't ready, but the slaves were; when women demanded the vote, men weren't ready, but women were; and hearing people may not be ready for us to get a deaf president, but we're ready."
Those words, and President Obama's, illuminate the struggle that precedesbestowing respect upon those once regarded as unworthy of consideration. They exemplify the erosion of prejudice.
A few winters ago, I spoke at an international conference on nonviolence. Everyone's account of oppression seemed to end with the words, "We demand respect"•we are human beings." I spoke of those who feel pain every bit as acutely, love their young every bit as deeply and long for freedom from shackles and the whip every bit as intensely as any human being, but who are not human.
Dinner was lamb. The mouths of people who spoke of ending violence were full of the bodies of animals whose throats had been slit with a knife. But haven't we always had to be pushed to open our hearts and minds when the suffering is not our own? When will we be able to say, not, "Respect them, for they are human beings," but rather, "Respect them, for they are sentient beings"?
The animals cannot rise up to claim consideration. They have no power to bring about a revolution. They can only bleat and squeal when they are attacked. Those of us who want to end their suffering must promote their interest in not being eaten, worn, experimented upon or beaten in the circus.
Human beings may not be ready, but animals are ready. They have been ready ever since the day our race declared war on them and made them our slaves. One day, a president may appear at an animal rights convention to say just that. Until then, it's up to us to relate to those on the plate.Ingrid E. Newkirk is the founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the author of 12 books on animal protection, including Making Kind Choices, One Can Make a Difference and PETA's Practical Guide to Animal Rights. She can be reached c/o PETA at 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.