Social Justice: Is Marriage Equality a Civil Right?

03/14/2012 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2012

A few days after he vetoed marriage equality in the State of New Jersey, Chris Christie appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Christie became uncomfortable, aggressive, and arguably hostile after the surprise injection of Jonathan Capehart, an Opinion Writer with The Washington Post, into the conversation. Capehart, who is openly gay, and who had been on the show for a previous segment, reacted viscerally at hearing Christie say that he has the "exact same position as the President" on civil unions over marriage equality. Christie said, "My feet are firmly planted right next to President Obama's." Capehart made sure to disabuse Christie of the notion that President Obama shares the same position on marriage equality. Toward the end of the segment, Joe Scarborough asked Capehart and former Democratic Representative Harold Ford, Jr. -- both of whom are African-Americans -- the same question: "Would you compare the status of a relationship and how it is recognized officially by a state to little children being blown up in Birmingham Churches?"

A better question would have been, "Do you think that the struggles LGBT Americans have endured throughout their 150 year history in the United States can and should be amended in the form of legislation that provides for marriage equality under the law in the same manner that the Civil Rights Act was passed by the Federal Government in 1964, effectively putting an end to segregation and Jim Crow in an attempt to right the wrongs of the 100 years that followed Emancipation?" or, succinctly, "Is marriage equality a civil right?" In the form Scarborough delivered his question, however, he trivialized LGBT history in the United States -- summing it up as only a struggle for marriage legislation. Further, he let Christie get away without having to respond to the fact that he encouraged the legislature of New Jersey to put the rights of a discrete minority subjected to heightened scrutiny up to the passions and prejudices of a majority, which American history proves has failed, both at dismantling racism and establishing equality for LGBT people.

Racism is a form of injustice. Homophobia is arguably harmless ignorance, but heterosexism is dangerous and a threat to justice everywhere. Heterosexism -- bias in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships -- is a recent cultural development that resulted from the classification of a new group of people, namely, homosexuals. Similarly, racism was precipitated, of course, by the construction of race. What is race? Is it what you fill out on the Census form? Then I don't have a race, technically: I have the right to pick White or Black as a person of Salvadoran descent in the United States. According to Census data: I belong to an ethnic group that the United Sates classifies but I am free to pick my race. This silliness was started by the founding fathers who established the Census in the Constitution for the sake of gathering data for the apportionment of seats in Congress. The 1790 Census had five questions which would be answered by every household in the nation, ideally:

- Number of free White males aged under 16 years

- Number of free White males aged 16 years and upward

- Number of free White females

- Number of free persons

- Number of slaves

The questions all imply race and some imply sex, since the original purpose of the Census was to gather voter eligibility data. Only the term White is used in describing race. The absence of the term "Black", which Jefferson used, seems to predict the history of ever-elusive names that the other (non-White) would suffer in America; for it appears that neither Black, African-American, or Negro is a completely suitable word. And there doesn't need to be a suitable word to describe any race. It's a construction, albeit one whose effects have altered human and American history, especially. And all this because of our human urge to name things.

The urge to name, to identify, to classify, resulted in the creation of gay identity as well. The words "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were coined by Karl-Maria Kentberry, an Austrian, in a pamphlet published anonymously in German in 1869. The pamphlet argued against Prussia's anti-sodomy law. Of course, same-sex intercourse did not begin in the 1860s. Same-sex intercourse has existed throughout all of history. The recent cultural definition of "homosexual" though is new and owes much to social, cultural, and political movements as well as pathologization by the psychiatric and psychological communities.

For much of the early 20th century homosexuality was something that people did not discuss openly. People who may have felt same-sex attraction generally suppressed their desires while conducting themselves according to heterosexist social imperatives and mores that demanded the establishment of a home and procreation. It was not acceptable to be a homosexual and it was not acceptable to live an openly homosexual life. While much progress occurred in the U.S. to liberate people who were not attracted to the opposite sex, including heroic and pioneering work conducted by Alfred Kinsey and others like him, with growing visibility and liberation came a backlash.

1969 saw the Stonewall riots which followed after the 1966 sip-in at the Julius tavern in New York City, where gays established the right to be served liquor. Prior to this event, which took its name from the act of civil disobedience that students perpetuated in 1960 beginning in a lunch counter in North Carolina, gays had been prohibited from being served at bars since their presence was correlated with disorderly conduct. After the sip-in, gays established the right to be served liquor openly in New York City. In the late 1960s, gays made themselves visible but with visibility came hate crimes.

The 1970s saw the first recorded crimes of violence against LGBT people including the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly-gay elected official in American history. While the LGBT community dealt with the blows of AIDS, the 1980 saw a decrease in LGBT-directed hate crimes. I wonder if society, if only subconsciously, came to understand that everyone was complicit in the tragedy that engulfed Greenwich Village in Manhattan and the Castro in San Francisco. Most of American society had demonized gays, stereotyping them as oversexualized, depraved, and unable to establish meaningful, long-term relationships. It should have come as no surprise that people would assume the roles into which society typecast them. And what results from furtive, casual, unprotected sex with multiple partners is venereal disease. But how could outcasts forced into a fringe society know that they were spreading an epidemic?

The 1990s and 2000s saw an astonishing increase in violence against LGBT people including the murders of Matthew Shepard, Larry King, and Sakia Gunn. When I think about people like Sakia Gunn, who was only 15 when she was stabbed in the chest after declaring herself a lesbian before her assailants, I know that the comparison between the struggles of the LGBT community and the struggles of the African-American community in the United States deserve to be seen in a similar light. Of course, the histories are not identical; there are many ways in which the two can and should be differentiated. However, it cannot be denied that both groups are discrete minorities who have suffered tremendous oppression and violence on account of immutable characteristics.

Let's return to Scarborough's question:

"Would you compare the status of a relationship and how it is recognized officially by a state to little children being blown up in Birmingham Churches?"

No, I would not compare the status of a relationship to children being blown up in a Birmingham Church. I would compare the serial rape and murder of Brandon Teena, the assassination of Sakia Gunn, the passion of Matthew Shepard, and the slaughter of Larry King, among so many others deprived of life and who could not bear to continue enduring existence, such as Tyler Clementi and Jamey Rodemeyer, to the bombing of children in Birmingham Churches.

I would compare the legal recognition and equal protection under the law that is afforded by legislation recognizing same-sex marriage and marriage equality as necessary as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution as well as the Civil RIghts Acts and Voting Rights Acts that codified and reinforced in the law that certain rights are conferred by citizenship to all Americans. One of the many rights of which slaves were deprived in America was the right to marry. The ability to say, "I do" belonged to free people. But Emancipation and Reconstruction did not guarantee blacks in America the right to marry whomever they pleased. It was not until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that laws banning interracial marriage were declared unconstitutional. It was then that marriage was established as a civil right.

It's time for the minority of Americans who cannot say "I do" to be granted full participation in American society. Marriage equality is the only way to reverse the wrongs that have resulted from the identification and subsequent persecution of homosexuals. With equal protection under the law, we can hope that society will become more accepting and that fewer LGBT people will senselessly die because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.