“Why do you need the word marriage?”
February 21st, 2013
David Boies and Ted Olson, the good guys in the Prop 8 battle, have filed their brief with the Supreme Court. At the end of page 1 they say,
Proposition 8 thus places the full force of California’s constitution behind the stigma that gays and lesbians, and their relationships, are not “okay,” that their life commitments “are not as highly valued as opposite-sex relationships”…and that gay and lesbian individuals are different, less worthy, and not equal under the law. That “generates a feeling of inferiority” among gay men and lesbians—and especially their children— “that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 347 U.S. 483, 494 (1954).
My third blog post ever, in 2008, barely a month after Prop 8 passed (and long before I was writing for Box Turtle Bulletin), was about the Brown court case, and how poorly I understood it for so many years, and how relevant it is to our battle for legal dignity. This seems like an appropriate moment to bring it back.
I’ve seen documentaries about Brown v. Topeka, and the producers always compare a spiffy 1950s whites-only school with a ramshackle "negro" schoolhouse. That made me think the Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine because the equal part never really happened. But if you read the Brown decision, the Court believed the separate facilities really were equal, or pretty close.
But the good guys won anyway. Why? Because they arrived with studies showing the mere fact of separateness did harm to black kids. The decision included this:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.
Relate this to gay kids. We already know they’re at a greater risk for suicide. Now they hear people say, “Settle for civil unions–we’ll give you the rights of marriage but not the word itself. What’s the difference?” Here’s the difference:
Any relationship you have might be good enough for civil unions, but not for marriage. Good enough for an uninspired legal phrase–not for the real thing. Good enough to live on the awkward outskirts of our culture, but not the heart, the core, the soul of America.
When I read the Brown decision, I have to think segregation of straight and gay relationships has a detrimental effect on gays. It denotes the inferiority of gay relationships. It leaves gays with an attitude of futility when it comes to commitment.
I don’t have any evidence on that. I’m not sure evidence is out there. It’s probably time for an enterprising grad student to take that on as a Ph.D. dissertation. And it’s not like we’re helpless victims here. Gay men can fight against this conditioning, and many of us succeed. But why should we have the burden to begin with?
And that leads to me back to gay kids. I just talked to my sister, a surgeon in Frankfurt, Indiana. Now, the city of Indianapolis might be gay-friendly, but the 50-mile drive to Frankfurt might as well be a 50-year voyage back in time as far as gays are concerned. I wonder about gay kids in Frankfurt. I think about Harvey Milk saying that victories in San Francisco gave hope to gay kids in small towns everywhere. And it makes me ashamed I didn’t do more to fight Prop 8, because that loss was a betrayal of gay kids everywhere.
And settling for civil unions instead of fighting for marriage–that would betray them again.