As human civilization progresses, cultures gradually come to the realization that injustices that were socially promoted and tolerated under past social constructs are, in current societal context, unjustifiable and unacceptable. Throughout history, during social transitions and/or upheavals, the great majority at first clings to traditional prejudices until it becomes apparent that the overall culture will not disintegrate when classes of people, once repressed, are allowed full and equal rights. In the relatively brief history of our nation, as social constructs evolved to tolerate free thought, slavery was abolished, racial discrimination and segregation were systematically dismantled, women attained the right to vote and have achieved a more equitable standing with men.
Beginning tomorrow, two of the most socially contentious cases of our time, both focused on the long-debated issue of marriage equality, will be will be presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. On Tuesday, March 26, attorneys will argue both for and against California’s Proposition 8 (defining marriage as between one man and one woman). On Wednesday, March 27, our high court will evaluate the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), that also defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, as to its application in federal law.
U.S. societal norms are presently in the transition stages with respect to sexual orientation. We have eliminated blatant discrimination in the workplace and in housing; many world religious have come to embrace the fullness of God's creation and some self-proclaimed, enlightened branches of Christianity and Judaism have begun to extend full equality. Now commonplace, acceptance of partner rights and civil unions, was unthinkable mere decades ago. In a pluralistic democracy it is inevitable that people with ideas that we don't fully comprehend or accept will be vocal and advocate their positions. It is my conviction that fear and intolerance are what magnify these ideas into threats.
Civilization evolves and propels us toward deeper understandings of ourselves as social players within the constructs of divergent societies. Movements toward meaningful change in social norms always receive considerable push-back from some and on the issue of gay rights, particularly same-sex marriage, certain groups in United States display what can arguably be described as elements of mass hysteria. Only when we have confidence in our own powers of reason and judgment, will we also have confidence in the power of ourselves and our neighbors to perceive the erroneous underpinnings of a misguided political creed.
Proponents of marriage equality emphasize the realities that without state sanctioned marriage, same sex partners cannot make medical decisions for partners in an emergency; state laws can force hospitals to follow the wishes of long-estranged families, who may be hostile toward the healthy partner ; the family may entirely ignore the couple’s predetermined wishes for treatment and should the family insist on to excluding a partner from visitation, they may nearly always do so. In addition, same sex partners can be compelled to testify against each other or provide evidence against each other in a court of law, from which legally married couples are exempt.
Even carefully drafted wills and durable powers of attorney have been overturned if a family wishes to challenge a will or exclude a partner from his/her partner’s funeral or from visiting a partner's grave. By current law, families can even take ownership of a real estate property that the couple may have been purchasing together for years, quickly sell it at a loss and hold the surviving partner responsible for the remaining debt. These are civil rights issues that have become embedded in state laws, excluding gays from the rights that legally married couples enjoy and consider their constitutional right. Gay couples maintain that it is not a matter of special rights to ask for the same rights that other couples enjoy by Constitutional law.
Conversely, opponents to marriage equality argue that it is clear that marriage has value in itself and not merely as a means to procreation, yet fail to explain why law has historically permitted annulment of marriage for non-consummation, but not for infertility. One endorsed stance is that the state regulates marriage (as opposed to ordinary friendships) to formalize the structure that children are reared within, in the context of the bond between the parents whose sexual union gave them life. Opponents go on to predict that should marriage be redefined, its connection to procreation will be undermined. Thus, it will be increasingly accepted as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction, and that by removing what they believe to be the core foundation of the marriage contract, that of childbearing and rearing, no principled basis for upholding marital norms will apply.
On a sociological level, opponents further argue that the original intent of the institution of marriage was to set norms and boundaries for socially acceptable sexual behavior both before and after marriage and that that the very logic of same sex marriage can be easily extended to encompass all varieties of relationships that we would all most likely agree cannot be legally construed as marriages. Opponents believe that in extending the legal status of wedlock to non-heterosexual partners is substantially nullifying the definition of marriage, its meaning becomes diluted as more relationships are covered by the term, marriage.
My own life-experiences and observations, gleaned through my interactions with partnered (as well as non-partnered) gay acquaintances, coworkers and friends, verify that the values the majority of same sex couples exhibit in their daily lives are reflective of those of their straight neighbors. Gay couples are clearly committed, monogamous and loyal to their partners and they place a high value on family life. They make efforts to contribute toward improving their neighborhoods and communities and ensuring that they become better places to live. They respect and abide by the law. Numbers are active and contribute to their communities, while serving on school boards, though volunteerism and by being socially conscientious citizens.
Sadly reflective of the law as it now stands, one couple that I have personally known for decades, often bemoan the fact that despite their having been partners and lovers for 32 years, they remain strangers before the law. Unless the court bases its determinations on gay marriage on civil merits, as opposed to moral outrage and emotionalism, these committed, loving men and all other same-sex couples will remain legal strangers.