Back in the Bay, where I spent the last month and a half, the topic on everyone's mind was the state Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold Prop 8, an amendment passed in November that stipulates only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized in California.
Until recently, I felt this wasn't my fight -- an easy thing to think when you're not gay, and when the majority of people around you keep their opinions to themselves. But because this issue's become so salient, supporters of Prop 8 are coming out in full force, making their presence as resonantly felt as the couples this law affects.
In the past few weeks I've met people that consider homosexuality downright inappropriate; they'll leave the room when a gay guy walks in. It's crazy to me to see this kind of behaviour, akin to refusing to share office space with a woman of professional parity.
Then there are those that argue this isn't a matter of civil rights; this is a matter of semantics.
The argument follows thus: "marriage" falls under the jurisdiction of religion, a realm the state has no business meddling in. So it's not gays' right to be together that's the problem; it's that we have to uphold this crucial separation between church and state. If homosexuals wish to wed, we need a separate definition for their relationship.
This is creepy logic, akin to saying, "It's not that blacks don't have the right to free water; it's that they just shouldn't use the same fountains." But even if you disagree with that sentiment, here are three reasons the "semantics" dissertation doesn't hold weight:
- It isn't exclusively religious heterosexual couples that get married. Any hetero couple that wants to, can, and sometimes God has little or nothing to do with it.
- The church meddles in affairs of the state all the time. Some feel it's because of a rather large church that Prop 8 managed to pass in the first place; and a still larger church contributed significantly to the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004.
- "Marriage" isn't just a ceremony in which man and wife make a commitment before the eyes of God. For ordinary people, it surpasses this definition: it's the ultimate surrender of yourself to another; it's a tribal ritual that reflects optimism for a now-shared future; it's the fantasy you harbour of coming home and wrapping your arms around your partner's waist, even before s/he knows you're there.
And I'm not even gonna touch that "sanctity of marriage" hoo-ha.
Perhaps more importantly, marriage has become the social demonstration of a pairing's legitimacy. This isn't something I'm personally crazy about, but US society puts a huge premium on the wedlock-fortified happily-ever-after. The desire for it is ingrained in us by our families, the media, fairy tales, and yeah, by our government -- in the form of tax shelters.
When a couple introduces itself in a room full of strangers, it means something to those strangers to know the pair is married -- not just living together, not just engaged in a "civil union" (the rent-a-cop version of Marriage™). You are automatically made to recognize the ideological stamp of approval surrounding that liaison.
That's the core of this conflict: the legitimacy of your union in the eyes of others.
"But hey," some say, "if you really love each other, who cares what others think?"
"What others think" is where the fight for civil rights begins. When a black man forced to use a different water fountain, or a woman denied suffrage, demand rights equal to those of their peers, these people aren't suffering from low self-esteem. What they seek is the opportunity to one day be judged by their merits, not by ethnicity or gender -- two variables that can't biologically be helped.
Changing a law doesn't guarantee tolerance, but it opens the door. It's the ultimate demonstration of what the state perceives to be the future of a society, proof of what tomorrow will abide.
The retraction of Prop 8 is one way of saying, "You guys may still have a hard time being accepted today. But your right to wed will be part of what your children's children define as normal, part and parcel of being a civilized and accepting community -- one in which productive commitment is recognized and embraced, and the value of a man is set by his contributions, not by the gender of his life partner."
Is that not worth fighting for?
Image credit: CarbonNYC.