There was much to celebrate on Tuesday evening, and many of us are still basking in the glow of its light. There were also three points of distinct darkness and disconnect. California, Florida and Arizona passed Constitutional Amendments barring Gay Marriage. If we needed any reminder that the struggle is not over, that prejudice and medieval thinking is not restricted the shameful way in which our great democracy treated people of color, here it is. Make no mistake; homophobia and racial bigotry are cut from the very same cloth.
Language is something to be taken seriously and respected. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, what we say and how we say it can be as important as what we do, and we should be judged for it. At the very least words can signal, often through the use of transparent code, how we really feel. There is no more telling word when it comes to Gays than “lifestyle”. The implication is clear, gay isn’t who you are, but you choose to be. Of course, it’s a notion refuted by science, as if we really needed science to tell us that being attracted to the same sex is totally natural for a percentage of the population, and has always been. Which brings me to the intersection of homophobia and racism. One of the major arguments against same-sex marriage is that it will set an example for our children. Somehow seeing the “Gay lifestyle” so publicly exhibited will be enticing, pushing our sons and daughters to the “unnatural” side. That’s no different than the once popular racial-phobic notion that we dare not come into physical contact with our black neighbors lest their color literally rub off on us. Yes, people actually believed that.
As someone who, by virtue of an ordination, is empowered to officiate at weddings, I’ve given a great deal of thought to same-sex marriage just as I’ve given thought to inter-faith marriage. And don’t think there have not been strong taboos against the latter. Remember too that interracial marriage was illegal in many states. Had that prevailed, there would be no President-Elect Obama to celebrate.
The problem with issues like same-sex marriage is that we depersonalize it to the degree that, for example, being heterosexual means that it has nothing to do with us. Really. Well let’s look at it from this perspective. I am Jew. According to the recent Pew study, Jews represent about 1.7% of the American population. So we’re a tiny minority in a very large country. Nevertheless we demand our civil rights. While there are no absolute figures, it is widely estimated that Gays and Lesbians represent 10% of the population. Yes, you read that right, more the five times the number of Jews in America. Pause for a second to take that in, then close your eyes for a minute and substitute the designation Jew (or however you identify yourself) with the designation Gay. In other words, make it personal and see how you would feel. During the campaign that just ended, we were told more than once by word or by symbol that this is a Christian country. Let’s, for argument sake, concede that it is. Am I as Jew denied the right to marry another Jew, or I as an ordained clergyman precluded from officiating at such a ceremony? Of course not, nor would we Jews stand for such an infringement on our civil rights. So, in that context alone, how can any of us, Jew, Christian or Moslem possibly deny 10% of the population the rights we demand for ourselves. Remember that in some are of our life, even if only professionally, we are all part of some minority group.
The issue, however, goes deeper than that. Marriage is a civil act. When I officiate, legally it is as an agent of the state not as an agent of my religion. To me, the same-sex marriage issue is not so much a matter of civil rights, though it is that too, but of protecting Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation. Those who oppose these unions are imposing their religious views onto what is a civil matter. We may impose our own religious values on marriage, imbue it ceremonially with religious content, but in the end it’s a civil legal contract. While some religions grant ritualistic writs of divorce, they have no standing in an American court of law. Only civil law can end a marriage.
So what happened in these three states reflects the larger attempted intrusion of religion on our secular society. It is just another in a series of issues including abortion, end of life or stem cell research, when people of a narrow religious view seek to impose their ways on all of us, even a minority of us. Now don’t get me wrong. I think any religious group has the right to deny its members sanctioned marriage to same-sex couples, an abortion, birth control, assisted suicide and even treatments that may result from stem cell research. I may violently disagree with them, but our Constitution protects their right to religious belief and practice. I would go further, in saying that we should all be prepared to defend that right even if we are of a different religious point of view or are atheists. I didn’t march for civil rights because I was Black, but because I was an American who believed in the promise of democracy.
After he gave his victory speech on Tuesday evening one couldn’t help but be moved by the cheers and, most especially the tears, in the audience. I had some cheers and tears of my own. But one of the most moving moments for me was when Michelle came back on stage and gave her husband a hug and kiss. There was no microphone to catch their private words, but even if you ordinarily don’t know how to read lips it was impossible to miss the words she whispered in his ear, “I love you”. While one never knows about other people’s marriages, it looks like these two have one that many would rightly envy. In the end marriage has to do with friendship, love and mutual commitment. All are challenging, a huge number of what, in code words, are called “traditional” marriages fail. If we value marriage and hope for its success friendship, love and commitment are what count. The more people who can achieve that, the stronger our society is likely to be. Why should we deny that opportunity of strengthening all of us to 1 in every 10 Americans? The answer is, we shouldn’t.