Written with a Sunbeam
When I was young, like many idealists, I still believed that America was exceptional. I still believe that this country is an exceptional one; there is still no nation that so fiercely enshrines the rights of man in its very foundational document and so vociferously defends them as part of its entire existence. But age, time, and the hard, hard lesson that good does not always triumph over evil or freedom over oppression have taught me that the American people are no more free of prejudice and bigotry than those of any other country, and in some regards they are substantially worse. From time to time, this grim fact — and the concomitant truth that democracy can be quite incompatible with freedom — makes itself explicit, and last night in North Carolina was one of them.
It wasn’t the first. It won’t be the last.
Even today, with my country’s political system more bought and sold than ever, and with intolerance making a bold new bid for the public embrace, I try not to become a cynic. The worst political ideas ever wrought by nations have been the work of cynics. It is the irrational fears and ancient prejudices of the stupidly sincere that form the raw materials of votes like the one in North Carolina, but it is the cynicism and calculation of the political class that channels them into the means by which they consolidate their power, using it to choke the life out of the very people who elected them. But it’s sorely tempting at times like this to despair about how ignorant and backward Americans have revealed themselves to be on the issue of gay rights.
The right of gay men and women to marriage equality is predictably recognized in Canada, and in Europe’s more progressive quarters, but what is more surprising is that it is becoming the law of the land in bastions of Catholicism: Spain, Argentina, and Belgium have all legalized gay marriage, and Mexico City now allows them as well. Civil unions are allowed almost everywhere in Europe, and increasingly in conservative South America (there is something especially disgraceful about being behind Colombia on any civil rights issue). Same-sex marriages are even allowed in South Africa, a country that still enshrined institutional racism under the color of law as recently as the mid-1990s; perhaps it was their history of ugly racial discrimination that made them so quick to tie it to anti-homosexual bigotry. It is not for nothing that it has been pointed out that the last time North Carolina amended its constitution was to prohibit marriage between races.
Let’s be perfectly clear on this: those who oppose same-sex equality are on the wrong side of history. They are being left behind in almost every corner of the globe, and they will eventually lose. Whatever the origins of their position — the inculcated brainwashing of tradition, the baseless irrationality of religious indoctrination, or the outright bigotry of repulsion and hatred of gays — they represent what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of old and evil”. Those at the vanguard of this regressive movement come up with all sorts of justifications that make it seem as if they are not simply indulging in the repression of a minority, but none of them hold a thimbleful of rhetorical water. For all the talk of sacrament and tradition, marriage has always been a social construct, and thus may be defined however we agree to define it without damaging the concept. Western society has gone through dozens of permutations of toleration of gays as well as dozens of permutations of intolerance against them. There is simply no credible evidence whatsoever that gay marriage does measurable harm to heterosexual unions, or that the children of homosexuals are doomed to neurotic misery; what evidence there is suggests just the opposite. And, just as with that other American bugaboo, marijuana, the harm that can be suffered from homosexuality stems almost exclusively from the fact of the bias and social and legal prejudices against it. If there were no such thing as homophobia, the whole idea of homosexuality would not even be an issue. Really, all you have to do to judge the moral quality of the anti-gay movement is look at the people who have sought most feverishly to eradicate homosexual behavior: the statist paranoiacs of the Stalinist era, the indiscriminate torturers of the Catholic Inquisition, the holy terrorists of the fundamentalist Islamist fringe, and the universally reviled Nazi party, who condemned pink triangles to die alongside yellow stars.
But being wrong, being doomed to ultimate failure, does not mean being denied long-term success. There has been bigotry against homosexuals for as long as the concept has existed ; indeed, as Gore Vidal has argued, the whole conception of homosexual identity — as opposed to the naturally occurring and entirely uncontroversial phenomenon of homosexual behavior — would never have emerged were it not for the prejudice against it. The notion that women are human beings and deserve to be treated as something other than breeding stock or domestic implements is a relatively recent one, and has failed to catch on in many quarters; it still meets with fierce resistance even here at home. And America continued its unbearable mistreatment of blacks far longer than any reasonable person might expect, and bears the scars of its badly healed racial wounds even today. North Carolina has made it clear that the forces of injustice and intolerance will not easily surrender their power.
The comparison with African-American civil rights has become commonplace, but it is not lightly chosen. There can be no decent defense of racism or homophobia; both are reducing a human being to a category and then denying them their rights based on their occupation of that category. Both are punishing a person for being who they are. But both enjoy widespread support that cannot be reasoned out, just as it was never reasoned in. Both are — with a few glorious exceptions, which are among the few reasons to be hopeful for the future of mankind — so firmly stitched into the corrupted minds of their followers that they are likely to loosen their grip only with the coming of death. And both are common enough that they are likely to stand forever in the way of a democratic consensus that blacks should have access to the same justice system as whites, and that homosexuals should have access to the same marital rights as heterosexuals. But that, of course, is why the courts exist, and is as fine an example as anyone could want as to why the federal judiciary must be allowed to operate independent of the popular will.
When LBJ used his mastery of the senate, the political clout he had accumulated from his dealmaking with the G.O.P., and the public sympathy accompanying the death of John F. Kennedy to push the civil rights issue, he knew it would be finally determined by the Supreme Court, and saw it through despite a social climate and political hostility that are nearly unimaginable today. Today, our Democratic president lacks such mastery, lacks such sympathy, squanders what little clout he possesses, and may not even have the will to make things happen regarding gay marriage. He also faces an entirely different Supreme Court, one which has been stocked with reliable ideologues in the last 20 years of conservative rule. But for now, there can be no doubt that the only way the matter of gay marriage can be settled is in the Supreme Court. The reason that states with significant anti-gay movement have pursued their agendas through amendments to their state constitutions is because they know laws against gay marriage are de jure unconstitutional, insofar as they are universally in opposition to the Equal Protection Clause and create a specific group against which it is permissible to deny civil rights. They also know that taking their case to the nation’s highest court poses a dangerous risk; even the likes of Scalia and Alito might not be quick to rule against anti-gay legislation, knowing it would make hash out of the Civil Rights Act and dozens of other anti-discriminatory rulings the court has made in the past. And it is, thankfully, still pretty well unthinkable that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage would have a chance to pass. The anti-gay movement has a legitimate reason to fear federal action on the issue, which is the reason for all the tinkering about with state constitutions — ironically, from the very same side of the political spectrum who are forever grousing about activist judges and Obama’s alleged violation of our sacred constitution.
But the death of a thousand cuts will not work here. The homophobes and bigots need a decisive blow to behead their enemy, and each little wound they inflict only engenders more sympathy in their opponents (and, increasingly, in the younger demographic that doesn’t seem to give a shit about the issue). One of the modern conservative movement’s founding fathers (and himself no friend of homosexualists) once described the ethos as that of a man “standing athwart history, yelling ‘stop!’.” This is entirely apt, and while entirely quixotic as an organizational goal, even a bit noble at times. But today’s conservatives, especially those involved in the anti-gay marriage movement, have scaled it down to a pettier and uglier goal: they are standing atop civilization, yelling ‘go back!’. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the rights of man are not to be found in documents or in law, and “can never be erased or obscured by mortal power”; they are written with a sunbeam, he said, and shoot through every fiber of the human soul. Conservatives have a chance now to stand aside and let that sunbeam through, see how its cleansing brightness illuminates and colors all corners of our society with hope and justice. Instead, they are reaching for pots of black paint to forever obscure the very notion of equality.