Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A step forward for our society feels a lot like a step back to the past

I first noticed it as just a little two-paragraph blurb filling a tiny hole on a newspaper page – there is a new section to the Illinois state government website that promotes tourism.

Called Pride Illinois, it is meant to promote the idea of tourism among gay people. In short, it is a site that includes lists of various places across the state where gay people allegedly will be made to feel welcome.

RESTAURANTS. NIGHTCLUBS. MUSEUMS. Outdoors sites. A whole world of entertainment where all people will feel welcome. And I’m sure it is meant to bolster the image (as though the ‘civil unions’ legislation passed a year ago didn’t do so already) of Illinois as a place that doesn’t want to discriminate.

I took a quick look at the lists, which at this point aren’t that comprehensive.

That may be because this is a new project, and more places and attractions will be added as state tourism officials become aware of them.

But for those of you who are curious, among the places that are “gay friendly” are the riverboat casino in Metropolis, Ill., and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in the Illinois capital city of Springfield.

IT’S CUTE. IT is a nice gesture. I’m sure some people with a twisted viewpoint of life will be greatly offended at this gesture – which is a good thing because it is their hang-up that is the real problem.

Yet it strikes me as a true throwback to the past in one sense.

The idea of a special guide telling people where they can go without having to face the possibility of harassment from locals whose “morals” make them think they must turn away people who aren’t just like themselves is not new.

Which may be sad commentary on our society’s history, although it might be a step forward that the Pride Illinois is an official, state-sanctioned effort, while the Green Books of old were virtually unknown to white society.

BECAUSE TO ME, the Pride Illinois effort sounds a lot like the old “Green Book,” the pamphlet that used to be published for about four decades until 1964 that provided a list of businesses that would serve African-American people (“colored” or “Negro,” if you want to use the terminology of the era).

Except for the fact that Pride Illinois is published on the Internet, instead of on paper with ink like the old, the idea is the same.

Which makes me wonder if in coming years, we’re going to get a list as comprehensive as the one that appeared in the 1949 edition of the Green Book. Ten of its 50 pages were devoted to Illinois (by comparison, Indiana got one page and Iowa had half a page), although two of those 10 pages were used to publish a “story” about the up-and-coming town “owned and operated by Negroes” – Robbins, Ill. (which now is a decaying south suburb that many people think of as the “poor” part of Blue Island).

Which is what kind of makes one sentence in that story sad. “It is worth the trouble to go out and take a look at an experiment of an exhibition of what Negroes working together can do,” the story by author George W. Sheppard read, adding that people ought to think of visiting and trying to “pitch in and help.”

THESE DAYS, THE Green Book is a relic of a past age when we thought we could limit the African-American population to a segment of the country that could be summarized in 50 pages. It is embarrassing these days to see that in some cities, the only place where an out-of-town African-American couple could stay was the home of a local family that would take in boarders.

It makes me wonder if the Pride Illinois site’s content will be looked at some 50 years from now with a similar sense of bewilderment – is this really all that was open to certain people in our society.

Were the hang-ups of certain individuals who would want to think of themselves as possessing high morals really that uptight?

For all I know, this content that Illinois tourism officials are gladly promoting today will someday be a source of shame – were we really that backward?

IT MAKES ME want to think that a line from the introduction to the Green Book will someday be applicable to the Pride Illinois offerings – “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

Change “race” to “people” and the sentiment still stands. Here’s hoping I’m still alive to see it happen.


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