by Jamie Lutton
– For The Capitol Hill Times –
Like most people, I have been following the continued gay marriage debate online and in local papers. I noted an edge of hysteria and paranoia as anonymous commenters raged against what they called “unnatural” unions. As we near Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the debate about the rights of, and persecution of gay people appears as just one in a long list of examples of people objecting to the way someone else was born. And I had an epiphany. Though prejudices against black and gay Americans have left their tarnish, there is at least one other that is easily written off – granted it currently affects other areas of the world.
It is the prejudice against left-handers. Consider, for a moment, the meanings we associate with synonyms for left, such as sinister and gauche. Of course, we left-handers (I am one of them) have been allowed to marry and serve in the armed forces, but until very recently, we ran a gauntlet beginning in infancy, for the right to use our left, or gauche or sinister hand.
Mainstream cultures, in most times and most countries have been made so uncomfortable by left handedness that lefties were forced to convert to right handedness so they would be normal.
As you read this, reach out without thinking and pick up a cup or pen, or open a door. You usually do this with using one hand or the other. This is handedness, and most people use their right. But not all. Notice the decision to use one hand instead of the other is innate. Not trained, not taught. Innate. We knew this now, and accept this without questioning, but left-handed people have been punished for thousands of years. The majority culture in nearly all places and times ahs been the right-handed, and in their intolerance and paranoia, they could not stand to have some minority among them use their left hand instead of their right. The left hand cannot be held up to take an oath, to shake hands, to eat or to write. Using the left hand was viewed with suspicion and punished severely.
The percentage of people who are born left handed now is about 11 percent. Until recently, however, about half have been converted into being right handed by adulthood, due to great pressure in school and at home. Converting a child to using a specific hand is an agonizing experience, and often leads to dyslexia, depression, and a lifetime of stuttering.
In Western cultures alone, as recently as the 1970s it was habitual to break small children of using their left hand. It was seen as a good thing to do, without question. Parents who loved their children and teachers who were supposed to instruct children correctly would severely punish them for trying to write with their left hands.
In the book “The Left Stuff: How the Left-Handed Have Survived and Thrived in a Right-Handed World,” Melissa Roth notes that stigma against lefties runs deep: “Stories are plentiful of ‘caggie handers’ trying to eat or to write, only to have their left hand whipped, scalded, sat upon, shouted at and even balled into a stump with duct tape.”
In the early 20th century some medical experts identified left-handedness as pathology. Some eugenics experts (this is the same group that later bred the madness that was Nazism) said that being left-handed was associated with criminal genes, and advocated that left-handed people be weeded out of the population.
The cruel confusion was between innate behavior and willed behavior.
Children were treated as if they chose to be left-handed and needed to be corrected or converted into right-handedness. Supposed experts associated left-handedness with mental illness, shortened lifespan, homosexuality and many medical disorders.
These practices seem barbaric to us now, of course. The bias against lefties has mostly faded away in Western culture. Even five of the last eight presidents, including Bush Sr., Barak Obama and Bill Clinton were left-handed.
But for many, the struggle is not over. In some countries being left-handed is still punishable. In Russia, Mainland China, Asia and Africa, many children are still forced to use their right hand, and punished, even beaten when they used their left hand.
It begins in early childhood and it does not matter if you are a Muslim in Iran or Saudi Arabia, live in a small town in the South or in Central or South America, if you are born left-handed or gay, even today, you will be discouraged or physically punished for using the ”wrong” hand or being attracted to the “wrong” sex.
This punishment, leading to the torment of children, causing great and permanent mental distress, needs to be addressed. The obsession of the dominant culture to convert must be addressed.
The dominant culture, in living memory, wanted lefties to pass as right-handed, to be accepted in their culture. If they “insisted” on being left handed, they were severely harassed, especially when they were young and in their parent’s and school system’s power.
It is now clear to me that we are just emerging from an age of barbarism, cruelty and paranoia, and that much still needs to be done. This cruelty of the dominant culture must be confronted whenever it reappears. The right to be oneself, and not be forced to change some part of oneself to please the dominant culture must be respected.
Left-handed people and gay people are natural allies. We lefties must remind ourselves and others about the cruelty of attempted conversion. This is a futile and cruel practice that can lead to depression and despair.
It’s time to bring the barriers down, and spread reason and justice to all corners of the Earth, so no child is faced with a lifetime of unjust suffering, ostracization and misery.