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Why I Now Support Marriage Equality

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Following is the text of a speech given to the Alliance for Full Acceptance in Charleston, S.C., on Sept. 18, 2013.

I want to thank you for inviting me to speak to the Alliance for Full Acceptance this evening. I am very honored to be here. I'd like to recognize the presence of my very beautiful and formidable wife, Mrs. Tammie Hoy Hawkins. Some of you may know Tammie as an active member of the League of Women Voters. She also founded and led the Low Country Housing Trust for several years, and in that capacity she helped many citizens find affordable housing. She is a passionate voice for equality and has been a very positive influence on my life and my mind.

As many of you know, I served as a Republican member of the South Carolina General Assembly for 12 years, from 1996 to 2008. The last eight years of that time I spent in the Senate. As a senator representing one of the most conservative parts of the state, I led the battle to pass the so-called South Carolina marriage amendment. This legislation would amend the constitution to specifically state that marriage would be defined as a union between one man and one woman. All other unions, especially those of persons of the same sex, would be illegal and unconstitutional.

Several hearings were held in the Senate Judiciary Committee and Subcommittee, on which I sat as a member. Opposition to the bill was led by Sen. Robert Ford, who courageously fought, against overwhelming odds, to defeat, or at least to ameliorate, the bill. Then-President Pro Tem and Senate Judiciary Chairman Glenn McConnell argued strenuously against ramming the bill through the Senate. To his credit, Sen. McConnell wanted to give opponents of the bill their chance to be heard, and for the bill to be fully debated. Both Sens. McConnell and Ford fought valiantly for due process and equality.

To my regret, I was on the other side of that fight. With the zeal and aggressiveness of someone convinced of the rightness of their position, I worked hard to get the marriage amendment passed. In reality the outcome was never much in doubt. But I certainly became the public face of the push for the marriage amendment. In meetings and on the floor of the Senate, I was very vocal and outspoken in support of the measure. Being an attorney, I used legal arguments, never religious ones, in support of my position.

Why did I take such a leading role in pushing the amendment? I felt that, from a legal and constitutional standpoint, making a change in public policy so fundamental and so important to so many citizens should be done by the democratic process. At the time, several courts in other states had issued legal opinions which invalidated or brought into question the idea that a state could ban same-sex marriage. These initial legal skirmishes set the stage for larger cases of more impact that would come later on. Many of my constituents worried that South Carolina could be next. My position was that if South Carolina was going to allow same-sex marriage, it should be done through the Constitution and the ballot box but not through unelected Judges making policy by judicial decision.

This narrow view of the question was just that: narrow. It was also erroneous and shortsighted. But at the time I genuinely believed that the appropriate way to change the law regarding marriage was to put the question to the public by way of a constitutional amendment. We now know the result: The marriage amendment passed both houses by an overwhelming majority. When the amendment was voted on in November of 2006 by the general public, it received a whopping 78-percent approval, and then it became the law of the land, which it has been ever since.

In preparing my remarks for today, I have reflected on my state of mind and what drove me to be so active on this issue at the time. That's somewhat difficult to do eight years later. And like all people, my motives were not single-faceted but nuanced and complex. I truly felt, as I stated before, that this was a question of constitutional democracy. This was a popular issue to the Republican electorate, and it remains so today, for reasons which I will explain in more detail later on. Obviously, doing the will of my constituents, as best as I could identify the meaning of that will, was my job as an elected representative. But I know now that on that occasion I did my job a little too well.

So now we come to the present time. As best I can tell, the reason I was asked to come here is because of a Facebook post I wrote on June 26 of this year. I was commenting on the Supreme Court decision in the case of United States v. Windsor, which held that the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal benefits, is unconstitutional.

A good friend told me a long time ago that there's nothing deader than an ex-politician, so at the time I wrote the post, I honestly didn't think anybody would care. I wrote it because I was sorry I had fought against marriage equality. I wrote it because I wanted my two girls to have something in writing from their dad on the public domain that I was wrong on the issue and was stating so publicly. I wanted them to see, and anyone else who cared, that I was repudiating my earlier stand and openly "coming out," as it were, for marriage equality.

Here's what I wrote at the time:

In my past days as a state senator I was active in working for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. With time and much consideration, not to mention a dose of enlightenment and empathy, I realize my past positions in this regard were wrong, and I honestly wish I hadn't been so strident against gay marriage. I have come to see discrimination against gay people as a great wrong, akin to discrimination against blacks, women, and other minorities. I believe that if a gay couple desires to get married, they should have the same rights as me. One cannot undo the past, but there is time left in life to change one's mind and reject discrimination of any kind, in any form, and against anyone.

That's what I wrote in June, and from my conservative Facebook friends I received some interesting comments, but mostly outright silence.

Right now in Russia, gays are persecuted and treated like criminals. Some are even jailed. We know that Adolf Hitler thought of gays as subhuman and murdered thousands of them in concentration camps. Even in America hate crimes against gays are perpetrated weekly, if not daily. I would say to you that America should be better than that. And America should not have laws on its books that give aid and comfort to those who have prejudice in their hearts against gay citizens.

The problem with prejudice is that to discriminate against one minority group is to give cover to those who would discriminate against other groups as well. Hatred, negativity, and blind discrimination are vicious vectors for violence and cruelty.

The marriage amendment and laws like it give discrimination against gays the shroud and veil of legal authority. It says that gays are not as deserving as straight persons of the protections of the law, and it deprives gay citizens of one of the most basic rights imaginable: the right to marry.

As it was with civil rights in America, so it is with this. In the South civil rights would never have happened had it depended on a vote of the people. The popular will was against equal rights for blacks. It took the Supreme Court of the United States to summon the courage to end discrimination against them.

Likewise today, the court is there to protect the rights of the minority against the whims and power of the majority. If a true constitutional right is implicated, as it is here, the court should step in and do the right thing. That's what happened in the recent DOMA decision, which is limited in its impact but will lay the foundation for other court decisions which will start to chip away at the discriminatory laws against gays in this nation.

I believe that during our lifetime, probably sooner than any of us can think, we will reach a point where we look back on the days of legally sanctioned discrimination against gays with wonder and astonishment, where people will say, "You know, what the hell was the big deal anyway?" ...

I just want to say to those of you who have fought, and continue to fight, for equal rights that people can change their points of view. I am by nature a very passionate and relentless fighter for what I believe in. When it came to the marriage amendment, that fighting spirit was misdirected because it sprang from beliefs which, though honest and well-intentioned, were simply off the mark.

I look forward to a day when, throughout this great land of equality and liberty, our gay brothers and sisters are accorded the same rights as everyone else, and discrimination against them in any form will have passed into the distant and unpleasant memory.

Thank you.

Watch former State Sen. Hawkins' remarks below: