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.