“If You See a Good Fight Get in It”—Gay Civil Unions

Posted by Melvin Bray on October 27th, 2004 filed in Home-Training

I’m about to offend a whole bunch of people.

(This essay is mainly for religious people. I might be inclined to use different language if I were addressing a different audience with different sensibilities.)

There is simply no such thing as “gay marriage”.

(Whether I have offended or excited you, I encourage you to read on—you may find yourself swapping positions.)

“Gay marriage” is an etymological non-entity. There is simply no such thing. Marriage by definition is a sacred, life-long, exclusive union between a man and a woman that has often been acknowledged as significant by the state. It has never been anything else. Various civil governments have acknowledged its significance differently throughout history, but the manner in which they have acknowledged it has never brought into question what marriage is. Thus, by definition, there could never be such a thing as “gay marriage”. Such articulation is a misnomer, an oxymoron, a figure of speech, at best.

As a society, I believe, we need to be careful how we use such figures of speech in public discourse. The language we use to discuss and debate issues today will inevitably become the lenses through which our children will understand themselves, their world and their history tomorrow–no matter how inaccurate our language may have been. I don’t imagine that homosexuals could do any worse to marriage than heterosexuals have already done, but how do we restore a sense of the sanctity of marriage for our children, if we are afraid to be honest about what it is and what it’s not?

However… As strongly as I feel about this issue and as deeply rooted as those feelings are in my faith, in the political debate over legally recognizing same-sex civil unions, none of these opinions matter. (Notice I used the term “civil unions,” which is what they are, not marriage.)

In a democracy, if we are going to recognize one life-long love commitment between consenting adult human beings as being worthy of special considerations, there must be a means by which we recognize all. As fellow citizens, we must acknowledge homosexuals’ equal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”–and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of our own intellectual, cultural, historical and moral honesty. Civil Rights for homosexuals and what many people of faith believe to be Moral Truth can co-exist.

The refreshingly insightful attorney and social critic, Connie Rice of the Advancement Project, points out, “21st century civil marriage . . . is a legal construct through which we distribute property, create economic communities, determine hierarchies of rights to inheritance, legal proxies and other intimate social goods.”

While I disagree with Ms. Rice’s use of the term “marriage,” her point should not be missed. In the body politick, civilly recognized unions serve more than just a sacramental purpose. Thus, by denying homosexual couples the right to be recognized as a civil union, we deny them a whole range of rights that are fundamental to the workings of community.

As fellow citizens, we owe it to gay and lesbian citizens to redress these inequities–now! Not 4 or 8 years from now, in another election cycle, but right now. (I almost feel strange writing the words “we . . . owe,” as if these rights were ever ours to take, let alone give.)

Here’s what really upsets me about this whole debate. My mother taught me that you “always leave a place better than you found it.” With that kind of home-training it is difficult for me to understand how as a community we can do all this talking about this issue and not be compelled to move toward correcting the glaring injustices. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is what Dr. King taught us. How can Blacks and Browns and the disabled and victims of sexism and ageism and every other type of -ism stand by and watch anyone fall prey to discrimination? Is it because we believe that our cause is more righteous than theirs?

Some might say, “Yes.”

That’s where we come to the heart of the matter for most moral conservatives. The orthodoxy of our various faith traditions generally teach us that homosexuality is wrong, sinful, unnatural, an abomination: ergo “homosexual marriage” must be morally wrong. I’m inclined to agree. And if the issue at hand were, “Should our moral code as a nation concede that homosexuality is an equally valid, healthy and honorable lifestyle?” I would say, “Fight on!”

But–you must understand this–that’s not the issue! That’s only the rhetoric, and I blame both Republicans and Democrats for allowing their rhetoric to disregard totally the critical issue that is negatively impacting the lives of so many.

The issue is simply discrimination. Instead of addressing the discrimination, Republicans have launched a two-prong propaganda assault to obscure the real concern. The first, a stop-gap measure, is to suggest that this is a states’ rights issue. This encourages states with more conservative constituencies to take steps not to acknowledge same-sex unions sanctioned by another state. The truth is Republicans know that such inequitable treatment can not indefinitely hold up to the scrutiny of legal review.

Their greatest coup so far has got to be what has happened here in Georgia. Republicans have succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballet that reads, “Shall the [GA] Constitution be amended so as to provide that this state shall recognize as marriage only the union of man and woman?,” yes or no. Republican state Senator Mike Crotts, who authored the resolution calling for the referendum, specifically requests in his resolution that only this language be used on the ballet knowing full well that the full text of his resolution goes much, much further. If passed, his referendum will outlaw not only the notion of “gay marriage,” but what is conspicuously omitted from the ballet is the language of the resolution that makes it illegal for homosexuals to receive any rights (i.e. hospital visitation, property distribution, etc.) by virtue of being in a committed relationship and the inability for GA courtsto consider or rule on any of the parties´ respective rights arising as a result of or in connection with such relationship.” What?! (If Mr. Crotts intentions are so virtuous, why must they be brought about through such deception?)

At the same time, Republicans have also put forth legislation to amend the US Constitution, supposedly again in “defense of marriage.” The reason for this is clear. As it stands now, the 14th Amendment to US Constitution reads, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Georgia’s Gay Marriage Amendment would undoubtedly be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, this is not a states’ rights issue, and Republicans fear this. I’m no historian, but I was taught that the whole Constitutional Convention compromise regarding states’ right was supposed to be in the furtherance and protection of individual rights, not in opposition to individuals–unless we are to assume that in preserving states’ rights the framers of the US Constitution were seeking to preserve for themselves their own little fiefdoms where they could make and apply laws the way they wanted with no oversight. Furthermore, I’m no legal scholar, but it seems to me that the very existence of the 14th Amendment establishes the federal judiciary as the final arbiter in issues of discrimination. If states could be trusted to sort out matters of discrimination in the best interest of its people, there would never have been a need for a 14th Amendment because the states would have granted full citizenship rights to people of color voluntarily. Knowing all this, the Republican rhetorical strategy has been to use language to inflame people’s moral passions while working behind the scenes to create a more favorable legal climate for their cause.

To be fair, Democrats have done little better. Their answer to the all out Republican assault on civil liberties has been to label the matter of same-sex civil unions as a “wedge” issue. Would someone please tell me what exactly that means? Aren’t all political issues “wedge” issues for someone or another? And while Democrats are running around pronouncing, “Republicans are just trying to use that as a wedge issue,” the Republican agenda is moving forward.

Both parties should be ashamed of themselves. And we, ordinary citizens, should be ashamed for not demanding better from our politicians. As civil servants, our politicians should be bending over backwards trying to make sure that even in defending marriage–which I’m all for–gays and lesbians are better off tomorrow in terms of their civil rights than they are today. We owe it to our fellow citizens. We owe it to ourselves. We owe to our children who, as moralists, we say we want to protect. Homophobia as constitutional law is a dramatically more dangerous legacy to leave to our children than homosexuals as full citizens.

Again, Connie Rice outlines the crux of our responsibility as fellow citizens so instructively:

“Anytime you have a group that is singled out for the stigma of unequal treatment and for the bias and irrational reactions of folks who are just “uncomfortable” but are willing to let their level of comfort determine someone else’s rights, that’s when [we] . . . have to step up and say, ‘This makes no sense!'”

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