Friday, January 8, 2010

In New Jersey, a setback for equality

Let's go back for a minute to the early 1960s, when the question of civil rights for black Americans was considered a divisive subject in the United States.

Suppose there had been referendums on the ballot or votes in state legislatures to repeal Jim Crow laws, the legal segregation that relegated black people to second-class citizenship. How many legislatures, how many states, would have voted to repeal those laws?

I'll give you the answer: None.

Not the members of one legislature, not the residents of one state would have voted to grant black people equal citizenship, much less allow marriages between blacks and whites. It took the courts, and eventually Congress, to guarantee those rights.

And the opponents of equality? They would have made arguments that sound all too familiar: they would have cited the Bible and warned of threats to children and talked about "tradition" and claimed that separate was equal.

I'm disappointed by yesterday's vote in the New Jersey Senate defeating a bill that would have allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry. But the outcome has nothing to do with justice, with what is right and fair, with the concept of equal treatment under the law.

One remark that particularly infuriated me was from Democratic Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, who said that voters would look unkindly on the legislature if it pushed for a social issue at a time of economic suffering. (He didn't vote on the same-sex marriage bill.)

A social issue?

What does he think marriage means to gay and lesbian couples? Marriage equality ensures that you can plan every aspect of your life together. It's about health benefits and hospital visitation rights and all of the other protections and benefits that come from being legally joined together.

My friends who happen to be gay or lesbian are not second-class anything and they shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens under the law. Votes in Maine and California and New York and New Jersey don't change that.

Perhaps the courts are where this struggle for civil rights will ultimately be won, just as it was for black Americans in the 1960s. Or perhaps it's just a matter of time. The vote in Maine was close and by all accounts, opposition to same-sex marriage is a generational issue.

In the meantime, I will continue to support my friends as they live life to the fullest, to celebrate their long and loving relationships. Gay and lesbian couples will continue to form families. No ballot measure or legislative vote is going to shove them back in the closet.

And I'm not totally disheartened this week.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal has ruled out any debate in the current session on amending the state Constitution to ban same-sex unions. That means the earliest the matter could be put to a public vote would be 2014.

Senator Gronstal, you are still a hero to me!

By 2014, the first gay and lesbian couples to marry in Iowa will be celebrating their fifth anniversaries. Hopefully their friends and family, neighbors and coworkers will realize that the social fabric did not unravel but rather, was made stronger.

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