Universal Translator

Sunday, June 26, 2011

New York Advances The American Story

My oldest friend called me up over the weekend and said to me, “Hey, man.  You know we can get married in New York now.”

“Yeah, I saw that,” I told him, “that deeply affects my life.”  We were being ironic.  Although we both support marriage equality, we’re also both heterosexual guys and New York’s decision to extend marriage rights to gay couples does not personally impact either of us.  Still, I was extremely pleased to learn of New York’s decision because -- as an American – had New York affirmatively decided to deny secular marriage rights to homosexuals then that really would have had an effect on me.

What is probably more interesting than the fact I support marriage equality is the manner by which I came to support it as much as I do.  I basically don’t care about anyone else’s sexuality.  Unless it directly impacts me (say, if the other person at issue is a potential or actual romantic partner) then not only is it no business of mine but it is not anything that really holds much interest for me.  I wasn’t even really interested in Anthony Weiner’s recent debacle, although I thought the media’s breathless reporting on it – all the while bemoaning the fact they simply were forced to cover it at all – was illuminating.

This lack of interest in others’ sex lives is typified by my reaction – years and years ago – to Ellen DeGeneres’s announcement that she is gay.  At the time Ellen “came out” she was starring in a top-rated sitcom (Ellen) and her announcement was big news.  It became bigger news when the decision was made to have her eponymous character on the sitcom also come out as a lesbian.

I recall that ABC dragged this fictional character’s announcement out for weeks in an effort to gin up higher ratings for their television show.  I don’t know if this ploy actually did result in higher ratings, but I remember that for a long time all entertainment news stories seemed to revolve around the fact that in some upcoming episode we would be treated to the public announcement that the lead character was gay.  This reporting quickly became tiresome.

I also remember talking about this with a co-worker (whom I knew to be gay) during a lunch break one day.  “Goddamn!” I said, “I am getting sick and tired of hearing about how Ellen is gay and how someday soon her character is going to ‘come out’ too.  Supposedly this is big news, but – really – who cares?  Who cares if someone is gay or not?  I wish they’d just get it over with so people would shut up about this and we can start hearing about some other story for a while.”

(Come to think of it, this is almost precisely the way I felt about the Anthony Weiner story.)

This attitude – a sort of exasperated “who cares?” – typified my position with respect to gay rights for a long time, but only because I didn’t understand what the real issue is.  As a heterosexual guy, I hadn’t given the matter much thought; I figured I just didn’t have a dog in that fight.  But this indifference was directed only to the question that I thought was being asked, which was “What do you think about gay people?”  It took me a while (because I am not bright and because, back then, I wasn’t paying much attention to social issues) to catch on that the actual question being presented was something different:  “Should gay people be treated equally before the law?”

Unsurprisingly, once I understood the real question then my answer was:  “Of course.”     

This seems such a blindingly obvious answer that I really only became engaged with gay rights issues when I realized that there are a lot of people in this country who do not think my answer is the obviously correct one.  This difference expresses itself in many ways, from people who object to the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination (in employment, in service, in housing, etc.) on the basis of sexual orientation, to people who object to the denial of public monies to private organizations because they discriminate on that basis, to people who object on religious grounds to the enactment of hate crimes legislation designed to afford homosexuals some legal protection – apparently because these people think their religious beliefs require that they discriminate against homosexuals.

But the starkest example of this difference in thinking is presented by the issue of gay marriage.  When it passed its infamous “Proposition 8” constitutional amendment in 2008, effectively stripping away the constitutional right to marry that California previously had afforded its gay citizens, California may have made American history.  From the time of its founding through the Civil War, the Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and until today, America’s story has been the story of a difficult but inexorable struggle to expand civil rights for all people, the story of a more complete enfranchisement of a greater and greater number of Americans.  The struggle has not been easy and it has not been smooth, and it has taken a lot longer to get where we are now than it should have done, but the direction this journey has followed always has been the same.

(In 2010 North Carolina opened the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, site of the famous Greensboro Sit-Ins of 1960, one of the seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. I listened to a radio article about the opening, which included the interview of an older gentleman who had been part of those Sit-Ins 50 years before. The reporter asked the older man if he had ever thought he'd live to see the day that America would elect a black man to be President. Implicit in this question was the suggestion that we should all be congratulated for having overcome our history of racial prejudice by having done so. The older man's reply made me smile: "I always knew that we would," he said, "I just didn't think it would have to take so long." I imagine that when you are the person being shut out of society, it never can feel like change is happening quickly enough.)

The passage of Proposition 8 might be the first time America’s story of greater and greater equality was materially set back -- not the first time that an expansion of civil rights was blocked or prevented, but the first time that the recognition of constitutional rights had been affirmatively rolled back.

As difficult as it is to contemplate that a majority of Californians who voted on Proposition 8 affirmatively voted to strip away a fundamental right from a defined group of people, what I found even more difficult to fathom was that this effort was substantially underwritten by organizations like the Mormon Church, which – like me – has no dog in this fight.  Allowing gay marriage affects me not at all, and neither does it affect the Mormon Church or any Mormons.  Extending secular marriage rights to gay couples does not require that Mormons recognize these marriages.  Extending secular marriage rights does not require that Mormons allow gays to marry in their church.  Extending secular marriage rights works no mischief on Mormons at all.

But denying secular marriage rights does injure me and, whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes it or not, it injures Mormons as well.  If the Idea of America means anything, it means that there is no such thing in our society as second-class citizenship.  And if there is anything worthwhile to the notion – endlessly trumpeted by the Right – of “American Exceptionalism,” then surely the equal enjoyment of all legal rights by all people in our society is one of the things to which we should be able to point as something that makes us so damned “exceptional.”

Lord knows we’ve never been perfect at this sort of thing, but the broad history of America’s story, the tale of an ever-increasing enfranchisement of all people in our country, at least keeps pointing us toward what should be our way.  But when – as in California and, at the moment, 43 other states – whole groups of people are denied equal rights before the law then the very Idea of America is hurt.  In fact all of us are hurt because then our country does not live up to what it promised itself, what it promised us, and what it has promised the world each and every time it has held itself up and claimed to be an example worth following.

So congratulations go to New York for enacting marriage equality for all its citizens.  In one moment New York has doubled the number of loving, caring homosexual couples in this country who can avail themselves of the benefits and responsibilities the legal act of marriage confers, and it has taken – on behalf of our society as a whole – another step further down the long road leading to a greater and more perfect union.

Congratulations New York, and Thank You.


  1. I think the state of Maine did a similar roll-back as California. Very, very sad.

    Here's my small story on this issue:

    I still remember when SF Mayor Gavin Newsome declared that gays could marry in SF. Up to that time, I had thought that that was the wrong battle to have--that we should just leave the word "marriage" to the churches and enact something secular that had exactly the same rights and responsibilites. When Newsome did his thing, I was afraid it was a mistake that would backlash and hurt the movement. Wow, was I wrong!!!

    It didn't take long for me to change my mind. I remember seeing outraged conservatives on stuffy shows (like the pbs newshour) ponderously pontificating about how awful this was.

    Bill Bennett (remember him, our Catholic gambling-holic nanny-wannabe?) even went so far as to say something like he'd support civil unions but not marriage.

    That was such an audacious, outrageous lie--as if he or any other powerful conservative republican had ever lifted so much as a tiny pinky to promote civil unions! At that moment I completely lost any respect for the opposition to gay marriage and became a full and complete and unapologetic supporter of it.

    And it turns out civil unions don't get all the rights and responsibilities of marriage anyway, probably because the jerks who oppose it will play all kinds of legal games to undermine it any way they can, and they have fellow-travelers who are judges and let them get away with it.

    I'm confident California will come around. In the too-brief window gay marriage was allowed here there were something like 40,000 gay weddings. That's 80,000 people who all have friends and family who have gotten to see how wonderful this has been for them. That influence has grown. I don't think prop 8 would pass here again.

  2. I sometimes wonder how governments got into the business of who should marry and what marriage is. I suppose it has to do with the fact that governments confer certain statuses and privileges on those who are married and withhold them from others. And I suppose, that being the case, it is wise and well to extend the definition as widely as possible to exclude no one in this regard.

    Yet it also seems to me beyond the pale and reach of any legislative body to decide who are and who are not conjoined.

  3. I think it was largely an accident of history, and is tangled up in the fact that for a lot of people "marriage" is something they recognize as a sacrament. Which is part of the reason so many people have such a difficult time wrapping their heads around the idea that these days "marriage" -- from a secular point of view -- might mean something other than a holy sacrament.

    I think that the government does have a legitimate interest in fostering the creation of family units. That just seems to me to be the basic building block from which humans construct our societies. But, historically, the religious sacrament of 'marriage' came before the secular government got involved and started doing things like imposing inheritance laws and tax breaks.

    I certainly am not the first to suggest that if we had to do it all over again and start from scratch the government would be best left out of the marriage business altogether: if the state wants to foster family units, then the state should just be in the business of recognizing civil unions; if the partners involved thereafter want to sanctify their union through a religious "marriage ceremony" then they would be free to do so, but whether they did so or not wouldn't affect their legal rights.

    But it is what it is, and we have the society that we have. And in our society I don't think it can be gainsaid that "marriage" is, in fact, considered more highly than some new-fangled "civil union." Which is why, if we are to achieve true equality before the law for all people I don't think we can legitimately claim that making "civil unions" available to gay couples is just the same as recognizing gay marriage. Even if all the same legal benefits would apply, because of our societal history I think unions would always be subjectively considered less than marriage, and thus there is no real possibility of a "separate but equal" solution.

    Equal is equal, and marriage is marriage.