On Nov. 4, our country elected as president, for the first time, someone who wasn’t a white guy. It was a deeply inspirational moment, reminding us of the progress we’ve made since the time of the three-fifths compromise.
But if the election of Barack Obama showed us how far we’ve come, then a handful of ballot measures around the country remind us of how much further we have to go. Three states — California, Arizona and Florida — banned marriage between same-sex couples. A fourth state, Arkansas, passed an initiative intended to keep gay couples from adopting children (it bans all unmarried couples from doing so). These measures are unacceptable and offensive to those of us who believe in the United States as a protector of equality.
That these new bans should be passed on the night of Obama’s victory is a sad irony. From the very beginning, our nation has battled the demons of discrimination. We’ve embraced slavery and treated women as second-class citizens. And while the twin specters of racism and sexism are clearly with us today, we’ve at least had the sense to mostly purge them from our law books. With the rights of gay Americans, though, we’re actively moving in the other direction: adding new laws to further codify the discrimination.
The California measure is particularly troubling. Earlier this year, the state’s Supreme Court struck down a previous measure banning gay marriage. The court’s decision rested on the fact that to deny one segment of the population the same marriage rights as another was discrimination, pure and simple. Anti-equality forces responded by adding discrimination to the state constitution.
Think about that for a minute. The court confirmed that withholding marriage rights from gay couples was unconstitutional discrimination, so California simply made that discrimination constitutional. That’s a staggering approach — one that grants the “it’s discriminatory” premise, but just claims that this specific kind of discrimination is acceptable.
Lawsuits already filed
Gay rights groups have already filed lawsuits in California, arguing that the constitutional amendment “fundamentally altered the guarantee of equal protection.” Hopefully, the California courts will accept this argument and put an end to this silliness immediately. We shouldn’t expect this outcome, because it would require the dramatic step of re-categorizing the amendment as a “revision” — a step the courts may not want to take. In California, constitutional revisions require approval by the state legislature. Regardless of the ultimate ruling out west, we need to continue working for equal rights in every state. Our own would be a fine place to start.
We have our own gay marriage ban on the books here in Minnesota. Thankfully, we haven’t elevated the discrimination to a constitutional level, but we still, as a matter of policy, consider gay Minnesotans to be second-class citizens, not deserving the full rights and protections of our laws. This one should be a no-brainer; finally, an issue for the state legislature to take up that doesn’t involve haggling over tax money. But we need to make our voices heard and tell our legislators to make equality a priority.
There was one bit of good news buried within the exit polling in California and elsewhere: Younger voters voted in favor of marriage equality, often by large margins. In California, voters under the age of 30 broke against the amendment, 61 to 39 percent. In Arkansas and Arizona, that age group was the only one to oppose the bans. Even in Florida, where the discrimination passed by a massive 62 to 38 percent margin, the under-30 vote only came in at 53 to 47 percent in favor of the ban. When you only limit the sample to those aged 18 to 24, we shift even further in favor of equality. This is our generation’s issue, and we need to fight for it.
It would be easy to see those levels of support among young Americans and get lazy, assuming that the needed change will come about in due time. That would be a mistake. There is no acceptable amount of discrimination — every day that passes is one more spent in an unfair country, and that unfairness affects us all, gay or straight. Living in a discriminatory society cheapens everything we do; as long as we’re willing to make exceptions to the principles of equal protection and equal rights, we are all hurt. We become a nation of empty promises.
We have to decide if that is the kind of country we want to inherit, and the time to make that decision is now.
A new generation taking control
Obama’s victory symbolizes, among other things, a new generation of Americans taking control of this country. We finally appear ready to leave the 20th century behind and move on to something better. That means working toward true equality for every single American — not rolling back gains already made. It is now our time to step to the forefront.
We’ve heard plenty about “change” over the past few years, and that’s a nice idea. But until now, it’s been all talk. No longer. We have a duty to create the sort of country in which we want to live — one that respects the basic human dignity of all its citizens or one that does not.
It’s an easy choice, and based on the polling numbers, it’s one most of us have already made. The only thing left is to act on it. So let’s not waste this opportunity. We’ve already seen what can happen when we mobilize, so let’s take advantage of that and right a serious wrong.
John Sharkey writes for the Minnesota Daily, where this column first appeared. The Daily is an independent, student-produced newspaper on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota.
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