There seems to be a fundamental disconnect in how we see ourselves as functioning members of society and the implications of the presence of an Other on that identity. If I see myself as “one from many” (E Pluribus Unum—dolla’ dolla’ bills, y’all), and my One identity is equal to—no better, no worse—than the Ones in the Many, my understanding of the Others takes on a mantle of humility, respect, and mutual dignity. However, if I somehow see these Others, the Many, in all their differences, their vulgarities, their beauty, their ugly, their oddities, their strangeness, as ultimately a threat to who I am, then that, eventually, turns everyone into an enemy. What is civil and what is necessary turns into a fight over what is good and what is evil. What is criminal turns into a question of what is sinful. What is permissible, what is a choice, becomes a threat to my sanctity.
It seems that the fundamental disagreement over what constitutes a civil right is akin to the definition of a human life. If we re-read the constitution we will find—in black and white—that only the whites truly counted. And, really, only the white men. And, really, only the white men who were prosperous enough to own land. Which reflects a much larger gap between our wealthy and our poor today. Our constitution reflects a definition of persons that is somehow quantifiable in percentages (what does 3/5 of a man look like anyway?). Thankfully, the Bill of Rights soon followed. Amendments that allowed for a recognition of past wrongs, expanding the definition of Person to include all men. And eventually, thankfully, all women. Though, ask any African-American (or non-white-looking person living in our borders), or look at the tear-streamed faces of John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, the countless others without famous names on November 4, and ask them what it means to be a person in this nation. You won’t hear much taken for granted coming from their lips.
And so this is where the comparison of Prop 8 to the Civil Rights Movement takes place. And how it becomes messy. If you understand the Amendment to be about civil rights of members of society of a different—and minority—sexual identity, then you can more easily grasp the battle for person-hood that so many of us—gay and straight see ourselves fighting. Even deeper, and more latent, in that facet of the conversation are questions of identity. No, it’s true: black, brown, olive (or white), persons did not choose the color of their skin. And to assume that the chemical makeup that determines a person’s appearance somehow merits their worth as an individual, we can all agree, is a pretty paltry grounds for judgment. (Or is it—evidence random nooses, lynchings, hate crimes still prevalent enough to cause concern.) Likewise, most homosexual individuals (I would say all, but generalizations are just begging for an exception to the rule to mar the whole point), would aver that they did not wake up and ‘choose’ their sexual ‘preference’. That for them, as they have grown into their identity, and discovered sexuality, that their same-sex sexuality is as much a part of who they are as anything else. However, that is not even a matter for debate for most. If the idea that someone is born and grows into their homosexuality is beyond discussion, then the idea that ‘gay rights’ are civil rights, is likely beyond comprehension as well.
Ultimately, though, it seems that this is a church-state issue, and one in which we are growing increasingly aware that we are uncomfortable with what church being separated from the state would mean. The fundamental support for opposing gay marriage often comes from biblical quotations and certain interpretations of select passages of scripture. Not from any constitutional interpretation. The goal in preventing same-sex couples equal marriage rights under the law (a matter of insurance, taxation, and visitation, primarily) is to ‘protect the sanctity of marriage’. This argument proves problematic on a couple of levels. The most significant, and cogent for this issue is the question of what role the state has in protecting the sanctity of anything. The state doesn’t care about crosses burning in yards because it threatens the holiness of the cross as a religious symbol. It cares because it is a security issue. The state no more cares about the sanctity of your marriage to a person of the opposite sex, than it ought to care about the union of two consenting, committed adults, who happen to have the same parts ‘down there’. If sanctity is what we need, then let’s go to the churches, let’s go to the mosques, the synagogues, the spiritual directors, clergy, and talk about how to retain and re-gain some sense of the holy. But the government cannot, and ultimately should not, have a say in what is holy and what is not. If being a homosexual is not a crime, and criminalizing sodomy has been determined unconstitutional by Texas (an other states), then we should not criminalize or discriminate upon persons wishing to express that to the full extent under the law. Perhaps, religiously, some would agree that gay marriage does not merit the same consideration or blessing or sacramental status under the church. But what kind of legislation do we seek and what kind of country do we live in if the role of deciding what is a sacrament is in the hands of the government?
People argue that to permit gay marriage would necessitate the legalization of sibling marriage, or pet-owner marriage, or polygamy. This seems a weak argument at best, and one fueled by fear or some vaguely perceived threat. There are valid safety and public well-being reasons to prevent incest and bestiality and statutory rape. These have been determined to be criminal acts, therefore preventing legal marriages in these situations has a valid, legal connection. The ick-factor really oughtn’t determine public policy. We cannot legislate other people out of existence, and when I hear others talk about the threat that gay marriages pose, it seems to me the only solution is to get rid of ‘them’ (the “gays”) altogether. I hear my undergraduate students talk frequently, when discussing taxation and charity, that we cannot legislate ‘love’. The government cannot tell us who to care about and how to express that. But we sure have tried to legislate hate. Or fear.
The fact is, denying rights to women and black people, and preventing immigrants full participation in our society, doesn’t make us—or them—go away. When one side of the debate talks in terms of morality, sin, sanctity, and the other side uses vocabulary of rights, union, discrimination and dignity, the conversation is understandably muddled. We have allowed the conversation to equate the law with moral code, and crime with sin. The government can enforce the former, but has no businesses judging the latter. Same goes for this conversation: that the government has anything to say about marriage in the first place, might have been our primary mistake. How we go about undoing the conflation of legal rights for unions between two consenting adults, and the marriage of two persons, sacramentalized by church authority, I’m not at all sure. But perhaps it starts within the church. The church ought to be talking just as loudly about what the ‘sanctity of marriage’ is really all about anyway. If it is a sacrament, why are we not talking about mutual respect, dignity, fidelity, and passion within the mutual commitment of marital bonds. If the government is in the business of sanctifying unions, based on biblical principles, then why aren’t we protesting against legalized divorce? We should find a way to legislate ‘lust in our hearts’. After all the two primary sins related to marriage Jesus mentioned explicitly were lust and divorce.
Ultimately, it seems we should celebrate commitment and love and treating others as equally worthy of God’s love and salvation. In a world that so often seems to celebrate violence and vengeance and promiscuity, why should we be so offended at two people’s willingness and desire to commit and unite and celebrate love. We’re creating an environment in which the Other can’t win. We want to protect the unborn but offer them a world that hardly celebrates life. We want to criminalize gay marriage, and then condemn them for sex outside of marriage. We want people to work hard and take responsibility for themselves, but don’t pay them enough to make that hard work seem a viable alternative. What if we fought as passionately and as loudly for those about whom Jesus had something explicitly to say: the poor, hungry, naked, lonely, sick, widow, orphan? Why do we search so passionately for something—some Other to hate—when there are so many Others looking to us for love?