One Step Forward, One Step Back

“Marriage is the most natural state of man, and the state in which you will find solid happiness.” (Benjamin Franklin)

On the same day Americans elected their first black President, Californians approved Proposition 8. The measure amended the State’s constitution with a simple statement: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The title of the ballot initiative, which voters read as they considered the measure in the voting booth, was more explicit in its discriminatory purpose: “Proposition 8: Eliminates right of same sex couples to marry.”

The news of this event struck me as a total surprise because until the vote, I genuinely thought that the United States had turned the corner on gay rights. As a gay male with 10 years of service in the US Air Force, I have learned to be patient with public attitudes towards homosexuality. But even in an environment where homophobia is legally sanctioned, attitudes are starting to change and dramatically so. The obvious reason is that despite its conservative bent, our military force is a reflection of society at large. It is clear to me that the youth of America have turned the page on gay rights even if their parents have not. If and when President-Elect Obama brings an end to the absurd “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy for military service, he may face some lingering resistance from the most senior levels of the Armed Forces. But the reaction from the core of the fighting force – those 18 to 24 year old men and women who serve on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan – is more likely to be one of indifference, if not surprise that the policy had not been overturned earlier.

Confident that my assessment of attitudes within the US military must certainly reflect progress in society at large, I never dreamed that Proposition 8 had a chance. When a number of friends urged me to contribute to the campaign efforts against the measure, I regrettably took little notice. Of all the places in America where one might still need to organize and advocate for gay rights, California did not seem to be a likely candidate. I was foolishly complacent and suspect that the amendment passed in some part because others felt the same way.

If attitudes towards Proposition 8 reflected a level of complacency in the months leading to election day, that sentiment has given way to outrage in the wake of the amendment’s success. Thousands have gathered to protest Prop 8 not only in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also in Salt Lake City, Boston, and 150 other cities throughout the United States.

For those outside the gay community or California, the whole affair may seem like much ado about nothing. It is just one state after all, and gays never really had the right to marry in the first place – this isn’t a step backwards so much as it is a reaffirmation of how things have always been. If this is your attitude, I urge you to reconsider.

In the first place, the magnitude of the vote deserves attention. Although the margin of victory was relatively narrow (52% to 48%), over six million Californians voted in favor of the amendment. Six million people voted for a constitutional amendment to take away people’s rights. While some of those voters may harbor genuine prejudice against gays and lesbians, the vast majority likely supported the amendment because they thought it was the right thing to do. Given that California is substantially more progressive than many other corners of the nation, the vote must serve as a wake-up call that we still have a long way to go in efforts to change attitudes and truly achieve equality for all Americans.

Our challenge, then, is not just to out-vote opponents of gay marriage the next time this issue is raised on the ballot nor to outmaneuver them through judicial process. Such action may result in short term benefits to the gay community and may be necessary to achieve long term goals; but to truly make progress, we must remind Americans of the importance of equality in all respects. Simply put, gays and lesbians deserve full equality and that includes the right to marry. Civil unions are the relationship equivalent of “separate-but-equal” standards, a failed policy in terms of practical application and moral substance. We will have achieved true success only when the idea of denying marriage rights to gays and lesbians is as offensive as the idea of denying marriage rights to inter-racial couples, a situation that existed in many states as late as the early 1960s.

A central theme of Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign was that the strength of America lies not its military might nor its substantial wealth, but in the enduring power of its democratic ideals. Central to those ideals is the concept of equality for all. After 200 years, the United States has made tremendous progress to that end, though we suffered a substantial setback with the passage of Proposition 8. As the struggle continues, we can find inspiration once again in our nation’s founding documents. The unalienable rights so famously identified in the Declaration of Independence and afforded to all mankind include Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. As our country and the constitution itself have evolved, the opportunity to equally pursue happiness has been extended from a small group of landed white men to women, racial minorities, and to some extent, the gay community. But we are not quite there yet. As Benjamin Franklin observed so long ago, those seeking marriage do so out of a simple desire for happiness – “solid happiness.” Gay and lesbian Americans simply want what all other Americans are entitled to. As we celebrate the election of our nation’s first black President, let’s live up to our ideals, overturn legislation such as Proposition 8, and finally extend equal rights to one and all.

November 24, 2008
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