Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Judgment of History

These are strange times. One week the North Carolina General Assembly decides to allow a vote on making same-sex marriage unconstitutional (never mind the fact it is already illegal); the next week Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is officially over.

One day LGBT people are so threatening that we can’t allow them to legalize their relationships; the next day LGBT people are allowed to openly wear the nation’s military uniform and defend the homeland.

It’s all a bit confusing if you are scoring at home.

The truth is, the game is over. The forces of intolerance and bigotry have already lost. A brief history lesson will demonstrate what I mean.

In 1948 President Truman ordered the integration of the military. In 1954 the Supreme Court tore down the separate but equal doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education that kept white and black children in separate schools. Even so, in 1959 Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving were convicted in a Virginia courtroom for getting married in the District of Columbia. Their crime? Mildred was black and Richard was white. It would take until 1967 before the Supreme Court overturned all state laws banning interracial marriage.

What is my point? The undoing of segregation laws that denied African Americans their civil rights was an uneven process that took decades. Even so, with the help of hindsight, we can see that the tide of history shifted long before all the unjust laws were struck down. It seems obvious that the same pattern is unfolding in the fight for equal rights for the LGBT community.

When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was passed into law in 1993 it was viewed by many as a progressive solution. Instead of kicking gay people out of the military, they were given the right to hide their identity and stay in uniform. It never worked that way, and thousands were kicked out anyway, but at the time it was presented as a step forward. We laugh at that notion now and celebrate the demise of that unjust law.

In 2000 Vermont was the first state to allow civil unions. This development was viewed by much of the country as an outrageously liberal thing to do. Today, six states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage (not counting the brief period when same-sex marriage was legal in California). Today, just over a decade after Vermont’s civil unions law went into effect, civil unions are now considered a poor substitute for the real thing.

So, through what historical lens do we view the North Carolina General Assembly’s action putting the LGBT community’s civil rights up for a vote? The legislators who won the vote are the modern-day equivalent of the Virginia trial judge who convicted Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving by saying:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The forces of intolerance in the General Assembly won the vote, but the tide of history has already started to shift and will view them with scorn and contempt.

All of this historical hypothesizing, though, does not mean I am at peace with the ugliness that has unfolded in North Carolina. Hardly. I’m damn mad about what the General Assembly did, regardless of how confident I am about where this issue ends up in the generations to come.

I am furious because what the General Assembly has done is a direct attack on the genius of the American Experiment. From the beginning, our nation’s founding documents were meant to protect the rights of minority groups. Majorities don’t need constitutions guaranteeing them what they already have. We write constitutions so that the freedoms we cherish will be guaranteed to all people, regardless of how popular or unpopular those people are at a certain point in history.

Do the 90% of straight North Carolinians need the constitution altered to protect their marital rights? Of course not. If you are heterosexual in this state you can get married regardless of your criminal record, how often you have divorced, or how many children you have abandoned. There is almost nothing a heterosexual person can do in this state and lose their right to get married.

So, the General Assembly has decided that the state’s constitution is the place to let the straight majority who have a right to marry that is virtually absolute say to the LGBT minority that what you cannot do now is doubly denied.

What a shameful way to use our constitution. What a cruel way for our leaders to act. They will deserve the condemnation of history that is already unfolding.

2 comments:

  1. Jack, so wise, so well expressed. Thanks for a hopeful note and a wider perspective.

    ReplyDelete

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology