When my home state of Massachusetts makes national headlines, it tends to be a cause of embarrassment for me. There’s the Big Dig, which has cost federal taxpayers over $10 billion thus far thanks to mismanagement, waste and government corruption. Then there was the forced resignation of University of Massachusetts President Billy Bulger, a man almost as crooked as his serial-murdering brother, ‘Whitey.” Next to our peers from the left coast, we Bay Staters can proudly claim the mantle of most absurd domicile.
But the events of Nov. 18, 2003, proved to be an exception. On that day, the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the much anticipated case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, stating that gay people, like straight people, have the right to get married in a union recognized by the state. Throughout history, gays have been excluded from mainstream society in a myriad of fashions (marriage being the most visible), and in the words of the court, “That exclusion is incompatible with the constitutional principles of respect for individual autonomy and equality under law.” The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, whose jurisprudence is heavily influenced by the fact that she grew up as a white woman fighting apartheid in South Africa.
In my interactions with foes of gay marriage, I have observed two types of opposition.(By no means is the dichotomy so simple; what I offer is a general observation.) First and most noticeable are the virulently homophobic — the Pat Buchanans and Jerry Falwells of the world who believe that AIDS is God’s curse on homosexuals and who support the government ostracizing gay citizens.
But religious arguments against gay marriage fail the legal test, for as Justice Marshall pointed out in her brief, “No religious ceremony has ever been required to validate a Massachusetts marriage.” Marriage may have its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but that is irrelevant as far as the law is concerned. The religiously-based contention that marriage is an institution whose main purpose is procreation, and thus must be closed to gay citizens, is equally fallacious, seeing that there are millions of married people in this country who do not plan on ever having children, while at the same time, there are many gay couples who do.
But then there are the more sophisticated conservatives, who are not traditionally homophobic, making their opposition to gay marriage all the more difficult to grasp. These conservatives have gay friends and know from these friendships that homosexuality is not chosen and that homosexuals are not evil. Many of these conservatives hold a nostalgic view of marriage as an inflexible institution that should forever exist exclusively for straight people because that is the way it has always been. These more enlightened conservatives stress that they have nothing against gay people; in fact, many of them support full domestic partnership benefits. But using the word “marriage,” you see, is just too much for them to bear.
I can understand this sentiment. Legalizing gay marriage is indeed a radical development, but only because gay people have always been snubbed by society, just like people of color were, and in many senses still are today. The argument that marriage should remain solely between man and woman because of historical consistency makes about as much sense as previous arguments that public schools should have remained segregated because “that’s the way it always was.”
Visiting my high school friends over the Thanksgiving break, I casually asked one of them how he felt about the prospect of gay marriage in Massachusetts. “I can take the fact that you’re gay, Jamie,” he replied. “But not gay marriage. Use a different word.”
While I know my friend is not to be homophobic at heart, his actions are homophobic in their effect, if not their intent (in the same vein that Harvard President Larry Summers described anti-Israel activity as being anti-Semitic). Many of the conservatives who oppose gay marriage on non-religious grounds do so not because they view individual gays as second-class citizens. Yet their opposition to conferring the right of marriage to gay people is de facto discrimination. It places straight relationships on a higher plane, essentially rendering gay relationships unworthy of equal recognition. More corrosively, it makes the people who enter into these gay relationships less worthy.
The opposition to gay marriage is in some sense conservative in that it “stand[s] athwart history, yelling Stop,” in the fabled words of National Review. But this denial of a basic civil right to millions of American citizens is in profound contrast with what conservatives ought to be supporting. Conservatives are supposedly in favor of an America that is as strong in hearth and home as it is abroad. As New York Times columnist David Brooks argues, “We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage; we should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.” Amen to that.
At the end of the day, time and interpersonal relationships will be the solution to overcoming the rift in this country over homosexuality. It is apparent that among our generation, “gay rights” is hardly the contentious issue that it has been for political elites over the past two decades. This is due largely to the multitude of out gays in our society who rectify their straight peers’ previously homophobic notions just by living openly.
To join this fight for equality is a moral imperative, one conservatives ought to heed.
Justice Marshall wrote, “The marriage ban works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason.” Hopefully, Americans of all political stripes will one day understand why this sentence makes so much sense.
James Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.