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After decades of struggle, activists for gay and lesbian civil rights finally have solid results. Over the past year, at least two historical roadblocks to equality were rightly knocked down—even as the nation’s most narrow-minded did their best to erect new ones. May 17 surely marked a happy ending for those who support equal rights, when hundreds of same-sex couples wed across Massachusetts. Cambridge, too, can claim a spot in the history books when it became the first city in the state, and thus the nation, to serve up marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Last summer also started off well for the cause of equal rights, when the Supreme Court rightly ruled in last June’s Lawrence v. Texas that states could not outlaw consensual sex between adults of the same gender.
Still, the last 12 months have been as disheartening as they have been thrilling. Neither Lawrence nor the Massachusetts weddings are made any less important by the fact that they were long overdue, that the rights they defended are so clearly universal. But in between these two late-coming landmarks, America’s bigots came out of the woodwork. As the newspapers and airwaves filled up with the hate speech of those who believe adults should be legally prevented from wedding those they love simply because they love people of the same sex, one lesson remained clear: the courts should be commended for affirming the rights of all citizens, but we have a long way to go as a nation before we are all truly equal.
It is a shame that, in the year 2004, the reasons for opening the civil institution of marriage to all need to be reiterated. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, ruling this fall that the Commonwealth’s constitution bars the state from refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, hit the nail on the head: banning homosexuals from marrying within their gender creates an artificial, inherently unfair second class of citizens. Massachusetts’ denial of marriage licenses to gays and lesbians was hardly the first time that those in charge of the American government did their best to deny its promise of freedom to all. Centuries of women, ethnic and religious minorities and immigrants, for example, have all seen the zealousness with which the privileged fight to hoard their rights. Gay marriage bans are, by definition, institutionalized discrimination of a kind that should be far less familiar in American society than it is.
That’s the elementary moral reason for letting gays and lesbians marry—the logic that eighth-grade civics students can grasp and only the hateful can oppose. But the case for gay marriage goes far beyond such basic principles of freedom; it is grounded in the pragmatic realities of the world. In a nation where homosexuals cannot marry, countless people are prevented from visiting their dearest loved ones in hospitals. For no other reason than their sexual orientation, couples are ineligible for the tax benefits given to two people of opposite genders who visit a justice of the peace. The civil right to marriage is much more than an abstract ethical concept, though it can easily be justified by ethical principles; it is also a very real quality of life issue, one that simple compassion if not a devotion to fairness would demand be made equal for all.
Of course, these ready arguments did little to quiet the self-righteous baying of social conservatives this year. At times, it seemed those on the right thought gay marriage would do all the awful things their predecessors had blamed on such pernicious moves as racial integration and the introduction of the New Deal. Allow gays and lesbians to marry, they argued with remarkable creativity of hatred, and soon enough people would be marrying children or their pets. (Clearly enfranchising an arbitrarily deprived subset of adult citizens is but a step away from enfranchising their infants or their dogs.) Or perhaps the problem was that gay marriage would, by its very existence, harm already existing heterosexual unions—so fragile an institution, apparently, is straight marriage that the presence of any other sort of marriage might nullify it entirely. What is most surprising about the many false arguments marshaled by those who oppose same-sex marriage is not how absurd they are, how tired, how hollow-sounding—it’s that, with logic that so half-heartedly masks the irrational and old-fashioned bigotry underneath it, conservatives bothered to put on the pseudo-sensical act at all.
And put it on they did, to thankfully-futile end. As great as it is to live in the state that granted the first marriage licenses to same-sex couples last month, we Massachusetts residents should also hang our heads in shame to live in a state ruled by a governor who has shown an Ahab-like obsession with preventing gays and lesbians from marrying. Gov. W. Mitt Romney sought an emergency stay on the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling to avoid the day of reckoning that came on May 17. He also joined others in a push for the court to backtrack in favor of civil unions, in which same-sex couples would receive all the benefits of straight marriage without the name of “marriage”—a bizarre semantic gambit which, though better than no rights for gays and lesbians, would certainly not conform to the correct standard set out by the court. Perhaps the most egregious suggestion—made by conservatives in Massachusetts and the nation as a whole—was that the constitution itself (federal or state) be amended to ban same-sex couples from marrying. There is a kind of brutal logic here—if the law forbids discrimination, rewrite the law. And there is a tacit acknowledgement in the push for a federal or state amendment banning gay marriage that the unamended Constitution leaves no room for such exclusion. The most legitimate Constitutional amendments, of course, have historically been used to expand freedoms, not limit them; in their desperation, opponents have sought to cut away from those rights already guaranteed by the law of the land.
Unless something drastic changes, equality has prevailed. The transparent election-year attempts of social conservatives to drum up a nationwide base of hatred have, for the time being, failed. But if the last year teaches us anything, it should be that archaic bigotry is alive and well in America—and that it can be defeated.
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