Marriage, Priorities, and (In)Tolerance
My first reaction upon hearing the news Thursday that the California Supreme Court had struck down the state's ban on gay marriage was great happiness. It's a privilege to live in a time when ancient walls of prejudice come down, and a great sign of hope to see even a court staffed with Republicans rule against discrimination. A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr--"the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice"--came to mind.
The second reaction was concern and consternation that this issue might again help to torpedo progressives' political prospects this year, as it did in 2004. We're fortunate that John McCain, for all his other faults, seems to have more character and honor than Bush and Karl Rove showed four years ago and isn't likely to campaign on this issue. (His allies might, but that too poses political risks for McCain; if he doesn't try to stop them, he comes off as a hypocrite, and if he tries but fails, he looks weak.) But at the least, the issue opens a window for efforts to mobilize a Republican constituency that otherwise might have been inclined to stay home. At the far extreme of disaster scenarios, it could cut into Barack Obama's African-American support given the all-too-common homophobia that remains within the black church--a homophobia that Obama, to his great credit, has spoken out against.
Increasingly, it looks like this election is going to tell us a lot about who we are as a country, and how far we have or haven't come from the prejudices and irrationalities of years past. Maybe this is for the best. As I wrote the other day, Obama's blackness, juxtaposed with the severe damage Bush and his cronies have done to "the Republican brand," calls into question whether the country is more committed to residual racist sentiment (which, IMO, isn't the same thing as racism per se; consider for instance the West Virginian business owner who's happy to sell goods and services to African-Americans but claims he "doesn't feel comfortable" voting for one--we might deplore it, but irrational and ignorant isn't illegal) than to a candidate who espouses a governing philosophy and partisan affiliation that a majority claims to share. Voters prefer a generic Democrat to a generic Republican by 18 percent, but nobody thinks Obama will win by anywhere near that much. Throwing in an affiliation with The Gays might shave another point or two off the margin; will it be enough?
My own view on the question further complicates how I see it. I might not quite be as fervently for the rights of homosexuals to marry as fundamentalist Christians are opposed, but I suspect it's pretty close. In a secular country where the specific religious and cultural preferences of individuals or factions supposedly matters not a whit under the law, it's impossible for me to see how this is even a question. You're either equal or you're not. The "ick factor" can't be legally determinative. And to say otherwise--to hide behind "tradition" or "majority opinion" or "community values"--is indefensible. I'm entirely intolerant of intolerance on this question... and judging by my reaction tonight in re-reading this old argument (in which I make just one cameo appearance on p. 9), I'm actually a lot less willing to "see the other side" than I was even five years ago.
(Maybe this is because, from the point of view of the gay marriage opponents herein as I understand it, my own three year-old marriage might as well be same-sex, because it's unlikely that Annie and I are going to have children and we actively take steps to make sure this doesn't happen. If it's absurd for them even theoretically to deny my right to be married on that basis, it's equally absurd to argue against the right of same-sex couples to be wedded in the eyes of the state.)
Now, there is a distinction that's difficult but necessary to make: that between civil marriage and religious marriage. Just as the position of, say, the Catholic Church on the morality of homosexuality should be entirely irrelevant to the legal rights of gay couples, the civil law is and should be absolutely powerless to force the Church (or any other faith tradition, of course) to recognize same-sex marriages within the religion. But I doubt that most casual observers understand that distinction, and I'm very skeptical that even as skilled a communicator as Obama can get the point across.
But when those thoughts quiet down, what we're left with is a profoundly heartening step forward for committed life partners who happen to have the same equipment. The human stories alone make a powerful emotional argument that this is good, this is right, this brings us closer to becoming the country of our aspirations, not our fears. For that alone, it really is a great day.