I was thrilled when I learned today of the Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional. Gay people are entitled to equal protection. They are equal to me, a straight person, when it comes to binding themselves to the loves of their lives in marriage.
It makes me seriously grumpy that this concept is big news. It makes me even more grumpy when I hear people wondering why I, a straight person, even care about the rights of gay people. Seriously?
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When I was in law school and in my mid-20’s, Anthony and I spent the Christmas holidays with my parents in California, which means my brothers and their families also congregated there. I don’t know what funky business was in the air that particular holiday, but it turned into a rip-roaring fight that ended with me not visiting again for five years. (That was a mistake, by the way. I should have relented much sooner, and I regret those lost years.)
One of the things we fought about was GAY. A day or two before Christmas, my college friend (pseudonymous) Ellen drove from the bay area to visit with me in Stockton. She brought along her partner, (pseudonymous) Kristen. I was delighted that Ellen was in a happy relationship. My family was warm and pleasant upon meeting them, which is our way. But on Christmas day, things unraveled. All sorts of homophobic comments started spilling out. Alcohol was no doubt a factor. I shouldn’t have been shocked to hear people saying that being gay was wrong, or against nature, or just gross, or whatever it was they were saying, but it upset me very much because I felt like it was because they had met my GAY friend. They were passive aggressively messaging me, I thought, and putting down my delightful and good-hearted friend. I couldn’t stand it.
I was a lawyer in training, so I lashed out. I remember practically screaming at the people I love most in the world, along these lines: Ellen and Kristen are responsible members of society who graduated from college, have jobs, pay their taxes, have never been in prison, and are not drug addicts, WHICH IS MORE THAN I CAN SAY FOR SOME MEMBERS OF THIS FAMILY! Who are we to judge them??
I remember someone adding that it’s a sin, and I got really incensed. I attacked again. Not so long ago, I argued, the law and our culture said exactly the same thing about mixed race marriages. People would have called us half-breed mongrel dogs, born of an evil marriage against the laws of God! Our parents wouldn’t have been allowed to marry!! DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT???
My mom got really mad at me then. Later that night, she apologized for only telling me to shut up, but she explained why. “You were winning, Carla. You’re better at arguing. You should have stopped.”
I may have been better at shouting down people, but the best lines of the evening didn’t go to me. I remember my sister-in-law sitting peacefully (she’s always peaceful) and waiting for a quiet moment. She said gently, “I just think… If someone is lucky enough to find someone they love, we should just be happy for them.” It was so kind, accepting, compassionate — everything this whole journey, ending with the Supreme Court’s ruling, is all about.
The other Oscar-winning line went to my own Anthony, who in one angry moment raised a didactic finger and announced, “I guarantee you, statistically speaking SOMEONE in this family is gay!”
That was a conversation ender.
The entire evening was almost a relationship ender. I guess it was one of those moments when I realized gay rights really mattered to me, not because I’m gay or because of my friends, but simply because I believe the prejudices against gay people are founded in nothing more than ignorance and fear, and are morally reprehensible.
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There’s a little book I read in law school, called “Should Trees Have Standing” and written by a law professor named Christopher Stone, that changed the way I saw the world. You can read the entire text here. There’s a lot of legal talk in it, but it’s a great read.
Professor Stone was addressing the question of whether the environment — the earth — should have rights in our legal system, but his ideas percolated up in my mind unbidden today as I marveled at the Supreme Court’s decision. Stone begins by reflecting on Darwin’s observation “that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension in the objects of his ‘social instincts and sympathies'”, moving from caring only about himself to a broader concern for others, including even ‘useless members of society” and animals. Stone observed that the law has experienced a parallel development, gradually extending rights to those who used to have no rights at all — such as children, women, blacks, Chinese, Jews — and even to inanimate beings such as corporations. (The Supreme Court knows all about that last one, since its conservative members decided corporations are people.)
It’s in this context that I celebrate the acceptance of gay marriage in America — not only in its own right, but also as a proxy for the journey that Professor Stone described, which has brought us to a place where slavery is long dead, apartheid has been rejected, women and poor people can vote, children have rights, inter-racial marriages are allowed, and on and on. We advance because eventually the right people in power realize a simple truth: we should care about each other because we should just care about each other. Justice Kennedy’s decision today represents one of humanity’s many little steps forward in search of this truth, as we embrace a broader view of justice, parity, and acceptance across age, gender, race, nationality, religion, sexuality, and wealth.
I know there will always be reactionary backward lurches, but today’s news re-energizes my hope that members of the human race can bind our lives together despite our differences — to each other, to the environment, to the earth. If we don’t destroy ourselves first, maybe there’s even hope for some lasting peace.