"All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." -- Thomas Jefferson
As hard as I try to find another way to say it, yesterday's California Supreme Court decision makes this unattractive concept abundantly clear: gays and lesbians are now the only minority in America against whom discrimination is not only legal, but in many cases, encouraged. California has become the first state in U.S. history to amend its constitution to deprive a minority of a right that they had been legally granted. Now, with both the courts and the legislature unwilling to defend their rights, California's LGBT population must return to the people who consider them unequal citizens, and try to convince them that they're worthy of equal protections under the law. If the irony of this decision being handed down on the day Barack Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court wasn't so pernicious, there might be room for levity. Alas there is not.
For years, and with the best of intentions, gay activists have been reluctant to call the struggle for full and equal rights under the law what is actually is: the defining civil rights battle of our era. Sensitive to the feelings of other minority civil rights activists and historians, and often accused of "appropriating the civil rights movement" (as though there were a limited number of civil rights battles to go around) gays and lesbians have hesitated to equate the struggle for gay rights with the struggle with African American civil rights in the 1960's in spite of the undeniable parallels.
"Loving vs. Virginia," the landmark case that ended the ban on interracial marriage, is the most obvious parallel, and the most germane to the discussion at hand. In 1967, 70% of Americans opposed interracial marriage, and the repeal of its ban was not put to the public for obvious reasons.
Last night on Larry King Live, radio talk show host Dennis Prager bumbled his way through an earnest defense of Proposition 8, positing the nightmare scenario (to him, at least) of little girls being asked by their friends if they'd rather marry a girl or a boy. When King pointed out that the same justification Prager was using to support Proposition 8 had been used in the past against interracial marriage, Prager puffed up like a male wild turkey in the forest bent on intimidation.
"Sex and race are not the same thing," he boomed. "A black man and a white man are the same human being, but a man and a woman are not the same human being." Huh? "That's why we have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts," went on earnestly. "Not Black Scouts and White Scouts." He went on to explain that married women were leaving their husbands in droves for lesbian relationships because "sexuality is fluid." What this had to do with legalizing gay marriage remains a mystery (not to mention the suggestion that if the bonds of heterosexual marriage aren't strong enough to contain these sleeper cells of proto-lesbians, perhaps the problem is straight marriage, not gay marriage.)
While it seems amazing that Prager's comments couldn't have sounded as insipid to him as they did to anyone with a basic grasp of language (let alone history) he perfectly articulated the incoherence of reality-free, emotion-based arguments against equal marriage. King reminded Prager that it did in fact include segregated Scouts. It also included the pre-1948 segregation within the U.S. army, which Harry Truman ended by executive order, not a public vote. Again, the arguments against allowing black soldiers to live and serve alongside their white counterparts are disturbingly similar to those used to expel gay and lesbian soldiers. History has validated Truman's courage in the same way it's waiting to validate Obama's.
Today, of course, the thought of putting the civil rights of any racial, religious, or cultural minority up to a majority vote is abhorrent. Unless of course it's the LGBT population, at which point the "debate" suddenly becomes about "religious beliefs" and "lifestyle choices." At that moment, all the prevailing scientific facts about sexual orientation being neither a choice nor a malady goes out the window, and the data from countries where equal marriage is already a reality that has had no negative impact on traditional marriage, or society takes a backseat to religious superstition and cultural prejudices.
The argument that the struggle for equal marriage isn't equivalent to the struggle for interracial marriage in 1967 falls flat at the outset when opponents of equal marriage assert that because interracial marriage involved heterosexuals, banning it was "illogical." The argument neglects the very real fact that opposition to interracial marriage in 1967 wasn't based on "logic," it was based on the same reflexive revulsion the opponents of gay marriage feel. Like interracial marriage in its day, gay marriage today is perceived as equally "unnatural," and produces a similar "ick factor" that has nothing whatsoever to do with facts or legitimate arguments. The end result was, and is, the same: that the personal bigotry of a majority deleteriously shapes the reality of a minority, and for no reason other than that it can.
It's too obvious to point out that "God's word," the penultimate fallback position for those who cannot logically back up any of their arguments against allowing equal legal civil marriage for gays and lesbians, was used to similar effect in support of marital segregation prior to 1967 as well. Since God is presumably in His heaven (or else sitting on a cloud ten miles above Florida, controlling the weather and blessing America) and remarkably silent on the issue, American evangelicals have stepped up to the plate to speak in loco parentis on His behalf, just as they did in 1967 and before.
It may finally be time to admit that while the circumstances are significantly different, each generation brings its own civil rights battle to the field, and each defines its era. The good liberal guilt many people feel about stating this, clearly and unambiguously, is perhaps a luxury we can no longer afford.
It's time for right-thinking people across the ethnic and cultural divides, activists and non-activists alike, to see beyond their own religious and cultural prejudices and make common cause with the movement for marriage equality and the repeal of the ban on gays in the military in the name of doing the right thing by their fellow man.
If that means church members standing up to the purveyors of prejudice in every ethnic and cultural community, so be it. There is more than enough history of oppression to go around, and while each manifestation of that history is different, the motivation behind the oppression is startlingly consistent, as are the effects on its people, including its children. It's time for people to recognize that the same tools they are using to wound and hinder the progress of equal rights for LGBT Americans have been used, in many cases, to great effect, throughout U.S. history against other minorities, including African Americans.
The LGBT community isn't demanding the first gay president (or perhaps the second, the jury still being out on James Buchanan, 15th president of the United States whose twenty-year roommate was Senator William Rufus DeVane King, nicknamed "Aunt Nancy" and "Miss Fancy" by Andrew Jackson) or a lesbian Supreme Court Justice. Yet. What they want, and what they're fighting for is full membership in American society without the three historical pillars of social exclusion (especially for men): the ability to marry someone of their own choice, the ability to raise and protect a family, and the right to serve and defend their country in the military. If those aren't "family values," then "family values" don't exist. LGBT people are not any threat to "the family." They are the family: sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives. The joining of two families is one of the oldest rites in the history of the human race.
It's time that the full rights of every American be fully enshrined and protected, and that the battle for those rights be acknowledged as this generation's defining civil rights battle. In 1965, two years before Loving vs. Virginia, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol and paraphrased 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. "The arc of the moral universe is long," Dr. King said, "but it bends towards justice."
The circumstances and manifestation of justice may change, from decade to decade, but the principles of justice remain inviolable. Our children are watching, and history is a harsh judge.
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