It’s been called the “Civil Rights” debate of our generation. The Supreme Court’s nine members are once again at the heart of the news, as they discuss two laws that could forever impact the country. Both address gay marriage. At present the Court is hearing arguments on two major cases dealing with this critical issue.
The first case addresses Proposition 8, a provision to the California State Constitution which dealt with an activist state court’s decision legislate from the bench. The court had ruled that gay marriage would be recognized as “marriage” in the state; Prop 8 struck that down and added the phrase “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California” to the state constitution. The question before the Supreme Court today is whether or not this violated the state constitution; and because of this premise it’s possible that the Supreme Court may choose to throw it out and send it back to the states.
The second case deals with DOMA, or the “Defense of Marriage Act” signed into law under President Bill Clinton in 1996. This law defines marriage as between a man and a woman and as such disallows same-sex couples from receiving certain federal benefits (i.e. taxes) afforded to heterosexual married couples. This was solidified primarily in the interest of societal structure, and the rearing of children who psychologically need male and female parental figures. Doug Mainwaring, a political activist and a homosexual man himself, comments “Has it occurred to anyone that ‘deprivation” might be applied to children raised in same-sex marriages who are denied the love and upbringing of both their biological parents? They are reduced to being parented by only one gender, and the deliberate deprivation of children here is, frankly, evil. They desperately need both.”
I believe redefining marriage in this country to be of monumental detriment to the basic building blocks of society, and I take this stance not only on moral grounds, but on basic societal precepts as well. Similarly I worry about the dangers of letting the courts decide something meant to be left to the voters in each individual state. While both these aspects concern me greatly, I instead want to introduce and focus on a different facet to this debate; something that hadn’t dawned on me until just recently.
Yesterday I happened to overhear the comments of a person (unknown to me) sharing feelings about these cases. I heard this person equate the outcome of these cases–should SCOTUS rule in favor of striking down Prop 8 and DOMA–as a sign that this person finally had the same rights as this person’s straight friends. This person continued in detail; however, suffice to say that as the conversation continued, it became clear that this person viewed their plight as equivalent to that of the Civil Rights Era.
This person’s commentary fell in line with the platform I’d so often seen used in this debate- that is, that the push for gay marriage is no more outrageous a request than it was for people in that day to demand that the different races–particularly black and white–could marry; that the defense of gay marriage is the same as saying that interracial couples should be able to marry freely, and live devoid of any fear of retribution. The recognition that this was the platform from which so many have argued this debate made me think of this whole discussion in an entirely different light.
I sat and thought seriously about this comparison to Civil Rights– what all it is that gay Americans “face” today in this country.
Before going further on this train, let’s direct our thoughts to a very dark part of our nation’s history.
For those of you who love old Hollywood as much as I do, you likely remember one of Sydney Poitier’s most famous performances in his role as Dr. John Prentice, an African American who has fallen in love with Joanna Drayton, a young white girl in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In sum, they must face both sets of parents and deal with their reactions. They are told that they will undoubtedly face prejudice if they move forward. They marry anyway, ready to face come what may.
For others like the fictitious John Prentice and Joanna Drayton who wanted to do the same thing, things were sometimes far worse than dealing with the potential of societal shunning. People living in Jim Crow south were flatly PROHIBITED from marrying interracially; and those who did so faced not only rejection,but true injustices such as violence and even jail time.
Take, for example, the case of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter. Loving, a white man, and Jeter, a woman of both African American AND Native American descent, married despite the risks. Late one night thereafter, Loving was pulled from his own bed and taken into custody. He was eventually sentenced to 5 years in jail (a sentence that thankfully was never carried out).
Theirs is just one story, propagated by the atrocious Jim Crow laws that defined the pre-Civil Rights American south.
Cohabitation Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars. (Florida)
Jim Crow not only prohibit those wishing to marry another of a different race; it prohibited ANYONE from supporting it. Those of you familiar with the movie The Help remember this:
Promotion of Equality Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both. (Mississippi)
While Jim Crow ran the south, Nazi Germany was running Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Some forget that aside from the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews, other groups were specifically targeted as well. The crippled, the mentally ill, the gypsies . . . and the homosexuals.
Even in today’s world, extermination on similar grounds continues. In theocratic nations in which Shar’ia (Islamic religious law) law reigns, many people die at the hands of the state for crimes such as apostasy (leaving the faith), adultery, and homosexuality. They are often hanged, beheaded, or stoned.
Readers, I ask you simply this: in light of stories like Richard and Miranda Loving; in light of the horrendous persecution that homosexuals faced in Germany and still face today across the Islamic world . . . does America’s LGBT community and their supporters really have the right to compare themselves to such suffering simply because they haven’t been able to change the definition of the institution of “marriage” to include same sex couples? Remember, it is an effort to redefine it, not to make it permissible for the first time. It is ALREADY permissible (meaning-not banned as a practice) in this nation! I contend that this comparison does a deep, deep disservice to the men and women who suffered under horrible Jim Crow interracial marriage laws, and the men and women who are tortured and killed at the hands of their dictatorial governments. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is real suffering, and it seems utterly shameful to even make the comparison.
The young man speaking with the acquaintance of mine dealt with taunting and teasing as a teenager. He felt rejected by his peers. His case isn’t the only one- and though I am staunchly pro-traditional marriage, my belief to that end would never excuse such behavior. Let me be clear: those who mistreat their homosexual peers through taunting, teasing, disassociation and the like are wrong, and YES, sadly, it does happen from time to time in our country.
Still, when I hear people like that young man speak as though his freedom is about to be won should the Supreme Court rule in favor of his beliefs, I cringe . . . especially when I think of the REAL lack of freedom others have faced and still face today.
We live in what is arguably the most tolerant nation on planet earth. I happen to disagree with homosexuality on moral grounds, but I speak for most who share this belief when I say that this doesn’t change how I treat my fellow coworkers, neighbors, community members, etc. Frankly, I’m tired of being told that my moral beliefs, and my conviction that an ancient institution shouldn’t be redefined, makes me a “hater,” a “bigot,” and countless other terrible things. In fact, per the gay man I spoke of earlier, my beliefs are actually “evil.” No, dear readers, “hater,” “bigot” and the like are reserved for those who arrested Richard Loving; for those who wrote Jim Crow laws; for those who bash in the heads of homosexuals across the Middle East.
Readers, I ask you this:
When they refer to these cases as the “Civil Rights” debate of our generation, it insinuates that homosexuals are lacking fundamental human rights and that this situation must be remedied. What is it that homosexuals in this nation lack, that everyone else has?
Let’s consider the following: Across this nation, regardless of whether “gay marriage” is recognized in any particular state or at the federal level, gay couples can marry as they please. No one and nothing stops them from doing so. (Incidentally, when a state is spoken of as having “banned” gay marriage, that’s not entirely truthful. To be certain, that state has decided that the word “marriage” will not be redefined to include additional unions such as same-sex relationships, but it does not ban homosexuals from holding a marriage ceremony if they so choose. No homosexual in a state that doesn’t recognize gay marriage will be hauled off to jail, or fined, or persecuted in any way for doing so. In fact, several states that do not officially sanction gay marriage will recognize the marriage license from a state that does.) They can buy homes together. They can build a life together. They can adopt children. They can have children through surrogacy or implantation. A person’s health insurance can include their “life partner.” Power of attorney can be granted to whomever one wants, included one’s gay partner. One can leave his or her earthly possessions to their life partner in their wills. Hospitals across the nation have come up with ways of dealing with the issue of recognizing one’s partner as a “family member” in the event of a medical emergency. The list goes on. Virtually the only things that homosexual couples–married or in a civil union– cannot obtain are certain federal benefits.
Most importantly, however . . . they are protected by the same laws that protect us all, and they are guaranteed freedom by the same Constitution under which we all live. While certain individuals may choose to (and wrongly so) treat homosexuals badly, or heaven forbid- even carry out acts of violence against them—the state certainly doesn’t sanction such behavior and in fact charges those who do so with a hate crime. The perpetrators are punished accordingly.
In sum- “freedom of association;” in other words, one’s right to choose with whom they spend their lives . . . is not missing in this nation. Homosexuals lack no basic civil right. They share in the very same freedom and safety as everyone else. What do they truly lack? I contend that in the context of a “human right,” they lack nothing.
While so many have tried to paint this as the so-called last cornerstone in the Civil Rights legacy; while so many have gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court as if this decision would somehow release them from years of chains and hiding; while so many have tried to equate the whole gay marriage debate to Jim Crow south . . . I contend that it’s shameful to position themselves and this debate in this way. While cases of discrimination and mistreatment (beyond teenage taunting and teasing) DO exist, it is not the norm, it is not state sanctioned, and to act as though it is cheapens the memory of those who did and continue to truly suffer.
With these, and any other marriage-related debates taking place across the country, the question isn’t whether or not homosexuals are a free people in this country, because they are; it’s whether or not an age-old societal institution should be redefined.
If (or rather, when) you find yourself having this conversation with someone—and you more than likely will in the current political climate—never forget to remain true to history. False comparisons are just as bad as forgetting history’s chapters entirely. And, when we forget history, we’re doomed to repeat it . . . same song, different verse. Challenge those who misuse history to further an agenda (any agenda!) by arming yourselves with history’s guiding light- only then can you be effective protectors of the true freedom this nation affords its people.