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Smoking Out The Queers

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Smoking Out The Queers

A report published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2001 states that "smoking has been found to be more prevalent among groups that experience high levels of stress." Not surprisingly, "smoking rates are higher among adolescent and adult lesbians, gays, and bisexuals than in the general population." Dealing with homophobia and its subsidiaries (discrimination, rejection by family and peers, fear of blackmail and assault, hatred from perfect strangers) isn’t a walk in the park, so gays and lesbians are more likely to need a jolt of nicotine to settle their nerves.

Smokers of every sexual orientation may have felt a need to light up upon hearing the news that Weyco, Inc., a company in Michigan, recently fired several of its workers for smoking on their own time. Weyco’s founder said "I don’t want to pay for the results of smoking," but since one of the dismissed employees didn’t even participate in the company’s health care plan, that’s a smokescreen meant to justify the company’s desire to control the private lives of its workers.

I’m not going to defend smoking. I’m as skeptical about the Surgeon General’s report as I am about any findings from a government agency, but I’m convinced it’s an unhealthy habit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, try to quit. But the fact is not every smoker dies of the diseases associated with nicotine addiction. Author Kurt Vonnegut, 82, a self-confessed four pack a day man (unfiltered Pall Malls) recently joked that he was suing the tobacco companies. "They’ve been threatening to kill me for years, and I’m still alive." A smoker is at greater risk for lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and stroke than a non-smoker, but it’s still a risk, not a foregone conclusion. Non-smokers can and will die of those diseases, just not in greater numbers, and some teetotalers will die of cirrhosis of the liver while some alcoholics will not.

It’s one thing to ban smoking in public places. It’s quite another to tell people they can’t smoke in their own homes on their own time. The question is where will Weyco’s policies lead, and who is most likely to suffer?

Dennis Prager, a conservative talk radio host and cigar smoker, wonders why it’s acceptable to target smokers for discrimination, but not gay men whose sexual behavior puts them at risk of HIV and AIDS?

Of course, gay men and lesbians already face discrimination regardless of their sexual behavior, but right wingers like Prager think that because our fight for equality is so visible, equality has already been achieved. Firing or refusing to hire someone because he/she is homosexual is perfectly legal throughout much of the United States. Since ignorant homophobes assume that all gay men are promiscuous and reckless in their sexual behavior, gays will face further discrimination if employers can now cite "health reasons" for refusing to hire an otherwise qualified candidate. And since gays smoke more than straights, we can be strung-up from two ropes.

If you can be fired for smoking, what’s next? Will African-Americans, who smoke more than whites, see civil rights laws circumvented because studies show they are more likely than whites to suffer from hypertension and, therefore, are more prone to heart disease and stroke? Will women be unemployable because they are at greater risk of breast cancer? Sound far-fetched? Civil rights laws may not prevent such dark scenarios from taking place because this isn’t about one’s minority status, it’s about one’s health. If you’re less likely to remain as healthy as a non-smoking, heterosexual white male, an employer can argue that he’s simply choosing the person who is most capable of consistently doing the job.

Everybody engages in some activity or other that puts them at greater risk for illness or injury. Driving may be the most dangerous one of all, especially now when too many drivers talk on cell phones instead of concentrating on the road. Most people would argue that driving is a necessity, but it’s a luxury most people take for granted. Relying on public transportation might mean getting up an hour or two earlier, walking to the bus stop in the snow, then waiting in the cold for that bus to arrive, and repeating the procedure on your way back home. But millions of workers who can’t afford a car (thanks to low wages resulting from corporate greed) do it everyday. The day may come when employers will demand that their employees give up the high risk driving habit, and with all the money they save on health care by firing smokers and homosexuals, they can build bunkhouses in back of the office building or factory. After work, you’ll report to the bunkhouse where a supervisor will make sure you don’t smoke, eat fatty foods, enjoy sexual relations, stay up late, or engage in any activities that might threaten your health and, worst of all, your employer’s profits.

Howard Beale, the mad prophet played by Peter Finch in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network described Americans in a corporate dominated culture as "two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods."

We’re on our way. If other companies follow Weyco’s lead, America’s workforce will consist exclusively of non-smoking, low cholesterol, whiter than white, heterosexual males whose lives are controlled by the corporations that sign their checks. A guy named Adolf had a similar dream. And he wasn’t very fond of gays.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

writer for the date.com newsletter

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