Ben-Meir: The new ‘separate but equal’

As the last results of last Tuesday’s elections slowly dripped in, I was reminded of Barack Obama’s appraisal of John McCain’s health care plan: “What one hand giveth, the other taketh away.”

As America resoundingly asserted that race would no longer be an unbreakable barrier to the White House, California voted to pass Proposition 8, and to amend its Constitution to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. On a night when many citizens celebrated one giant leap towards a more equal society, many others went to bed, alone or with their partners, having been told that they were somehow less than their fellow man, that they had to wait a little longer for their rights.

Make no mistake: Gay rights are civil rights, and civil rights are human rights. The attempts to deny this are predicated wholly on religious arguments; vague assertions that “traditional” marriage will somehow be cheapened by extending its embrace to same-sex unions; and, inescapably, prejudice masquerading as concern for “the moral fabric of society.” As Americans, we make our laws with an eye towards religious precepts, but our laws are pointedly not transposed directly from Leviticus (see any lobster-serving restaurant for evidence).

The fear of perverting the institution of marriage is directly analogous to the mid-century fear that public education would be ruined by integration, and is equally indefensible. How often in history has a resistance to “moral degradation” been used to heap injustice on convenient scapegoats, out of fear, ignorance or a simple desire for the sort of power that can only come from dividing a society into “us” and “them”?

My purpose is not to argue yet again for gay marriage. I believe that discussion has been played out, that the rightness of equality is indisputable and that those who would today proclaim otherwise will tomorrow find their words on the ash heap of history, along with those men of strong conviction who once proclaimed that separate could somehow be equal.

My purpose is to remind any who may read these words that the march towards a true equality, which made great strides last week, is ongoing. To those who believe that all men are created equal, and that this premise guarantees certain fundamental rights, this election should serve as a reminder of how great a distance still remains to be traveled.

It is difficult to know how to move forward on this issue. The people spoke in California, and their verdict was clear, if close. What, then, can be done?

People of good conscience can raise their voices against intolerance, they can protest loudly the casual prejudice that allows any person to think that voting to strip a man of his rights is a decent exercise of such a great power. Those so inclined can organize, an activity whose strength was shown by the astonishing results of the presidential election. Others can write, run for office, carry a message of tolerance back to their churches and their families. What those who object to discrimination cannot do is to do nothing.

There are those who urge patience, who say that equality will come, that change takes time. I respond with words from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ ”

Ilan Ben-Meir is a freshman in Trumbull College.


  • Both Sides

    Your argument is cogent, but it rests upon a fallacious assumption; namely that homosexuality should be afforded the same moral stature as heterosexual MARRIAGE by those who are opposed to it on those grounds.

    Certainly, bigotry and mean-spiritedness have no place in this discussion. However, given that the US remains a Christian nation, founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic, it follows that the gay community might achieve better results with changed verbiage: CIVIL UNION.

    Perhaps, the solution is to completely get government out of the marriage game. Why should the government marry anyone, gay or straight? Shouldn't the government just recognize and register CIVIL UNIONS???

    There is no "separation of church and state" mentioned in the US Constitution. However, it seems that a good solution to this (and it would suit my Christian ethic) would be to reserve MARRIAGE to religious groups as a religious observance. This would permit religious groups to deny this benefit to those who do not meet their moral code.

  • ES

    To Both Sides--

    I would be inclined to agree with you, if it weren't for the fact that secular marriage has already been around for so long that it is much too late to redefine it as a purely religious institution. I am an atheist who was raised without a religion, yet I could go get married anytime and no one would stop me because I am a woman who would marry a man. I don't think Americans can say with good conscience that equality has been extended to homosexuals until they, too, can walk into their city hall and obtain a marriage license.

    I also remain deeply saddened that numerous gay people have grown up hating themselves because their spiritual leaders have deemed their love immoral. I was moved to tears the other day on hearing the story of a little girl in California who was afraid that she was going to have to lose one or both of her parents because they could no longer be married. I fail to see how people with moral concerns can feel justified in inflicting this kind of pain and destruction of families. I believe that Christianity teaches people to be responsible for their own morality, not for the morality of others. What is happening hear is that people are losing sight of their own moral responsibilities in their eagerness to take responsibility for other people's morality.

  • Ilan Ben-Meir

    I am not opposed to your proposal that government do no more than issue civil unions with equal benefits to both gay and straight couples. However, as long as "marriage" remains the functional unit of civil union in this country, "civil unions" remain an unacceptable segregation; one more "separate but equal". While your solution may be the best one, as long as government provides for some marriages, it must sanction them all.

    The problems begin with the notion that if gay marriage is offensive to the "Christian ethic" that you mentioned, it must therefore be restricted. We strive towards a government of laws, not men; our laws privilege morality, but not at the expense of equality. As a society, we have time and again decided that we value a broad idea of equality over particular conceptions of morality. This idea is the root of my belief that restrictions on gay marriage are fated to become just one more relic of intolerance in the America we are rapidly creating.

    Thank you for responding to my piece. I hope to continue this discussion in the days to come.

  • mb

    Sure, #1, I'd basically be with you, if this were actually as simple as separating church and state.

    But I'd like to point out that marriage is NOT solely religious: it is also a social institution that can have purely secular meaning. I'm an atheist engaged to an agnostic, and we're still getting married. Even though the practice has no religious significance for us, it still has social meaning as a public declaration of our commitment to one another. After the ceremony, I'll be able to say "We're married," and in terms of human relationships, people will know what that means.

    I wouldn't settle for being "civilly united." I don't see why I should have to if I were gay, either.