2003: A Groundbreaking Year
Historians will view 2003 as a decisive year in the struggle for homosexual rights in the United States. The landmark decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas set gay rights ahead by many years; it not only invalidated states' discriminatory anti-sodomy laws but also declared that gays (and I use the word to define not only homosexuals but those like myself who straddle the line between homosexuality and heterosexuality) are to be protected under the law as contributing members of American society. In another monumental legal decision, Massachusetts-- because of a state Supreme Court ruling in Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health-- became the first state to recognize gay marriage. A court action across the border in Canada that legalized gay marriage in that country also caused many gay Americans to cross the border and get a Canadian marriage license.
2003 will also be remembered as the beginning of the gay-rights backlash. Social conservatives, inflamed by the actions (they would say "activism") of the judiciary, responded with a campaign to keep gays outside of marriage. The issue of gay rights has split across party lines: members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are coming out both for and against gay marriage while both of the major poilitical parties are trying to duck the issue. President George W. Bush issued several ambigous remarks and came in as generally against gay marriage but for gay rights; the major Democratic presidential candidates are all somewhere between supporting civil unions for gays and against any form of gay marriage whatsoever. (Remember, it is ex-President Bill Clinton that signed trhe federal Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a strictly heterosexual institution.) The American public also seems split in its views. A recent New York Times/CBS poll indicated that support for gay rights has waned since the Supreme Court's summer decision, with 54% of the American public against further strides in gay rights. (N.B. Another poll released by The Wall Street Journal and ABC contradicted these results.)
Through January of 2004: A Continuance
The first month of 2004 was largely a fleshing-out of the 2003 trends. Social traditionalists prepared to submit a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to a lame-duck Congress; Mr. Bush alluded to as much in his 2004 State of the Union Address. On a more progressive note, my home state of New Jersey passed the Domestic Partnership Act, guaranteeing gay couples-- and unmarried heterosexual couples over the age of 61-- a form of domestic partnership. What was truly amazing was the lack of rancor the bill created. It passed without comment in the State Assembly and went through the State Senate with only nine abstentions against it; no State Senator even took the floor against it.
Duking it out in the Legislatures and the Courthouses of the Nation
It's an absolute certainty that the gay-rights struggle will continue in 2004 and beyond. Social conservatives will continue pushing their anti-homosexual beliefs onto the United States' legislative agenda while gay-rights activists will continue using the courts and state legislatures to further their own goals.
It's possible to view the gay-rights movement-- characterized by a constant give-and-take struggle-- through the prism of the black Civil Rights Movement and draw a conclusion based on this comparison. In the wake of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage, public opinion swung violently against inerracial couples. No less than three attempts were made to amend the Constitution. They all failed. In the end, it became obvious to all that interracial marriage was here to stay.
Gay marriage is following interracial marriage's footsteps, and the current attempt at a "constitutional remedy" to reverse the courts' decisions will also most-likely fail. It takes a tremendous amount of legwork to rivet an amendment to the Constitution-- three-fourths of all state legislatures (a total of 38) must ratify the proposed amendment even if it somehow passes, with a two-thirds majority, through both houses of Congress. It should also be noted that in no case in the nation's history has an amendment been ratified that restricts civil liberties (unless you consider Prohibition to be a serious infringement on human rights). Supporters of the nascent amendment movement have an inexorably difficult uphill struggle ahead of them. Though they may succeed in the several of the more traditionalist states, Nebraska being one such example, the prospects for a federal amendment are inconceivably low.
In the Eyes of the Public
Despite the legislative fulminations from activists on both sides of the issue, it is in the court of public opinion that the gay-rights movement will eventually triumph. The statistics speak for themselves: a majority of young Americans support gay rights, including gay marriage. As the older generations leave their children behind, attitutes will change as they did in the wake of Loving v. Virginia. In the immediate aftermath of that controversial decision made in the midst of the black civil-rights movement, two-thirds of Americans were opposed to interracial marriage; today the opposite is true. Racist rhetoric was once thundered from the pulpits of churches and proclaimed on the campaigns of political candidates; today, those who purport the ideas of racial superiority are excluded from American culture. This same pattern will follow in the wake of the gay civil rights movement, as old notions of intolerance are washed away and replaced with an air of respect. Steps in this direction have already been taken by the Episcopal Church's decision last year to ordain an openly-gay bishop.
Gay-rights activists do have one up on their black predecessors: gays are already members of American society and not victims of segregation. As the various different sexual orientations manifest in the early-to-late teens (usually coinciding with the onset of puberty), gays are an integral part of the current social structure, existing at every rung of the social ladder and in every area of the country. Unlike blacks, who constituted a second-class culture below their white overlords, gays grow up in the midst of popular society.
This lends an advantage to gay-rights activists. Prejudice is largely based on ignorance-- it's easy to despise groups of people that you don't know first hand, as the Nazis demonstrated in their demonization campaigns against the Jews. However, it's exceedingly difficult to hate a neighbor, a friend or a family member. As gays come out of the closet, they in turn change the negative views of at least some of their friends, family members and associates on homosexuality. As Adam Goodheart wrote in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times ("Small-Town Gay America", November 23, 2003), when homophobes spout their anti-gay philosophy, "they will be pitting a mere abstraction against millions of very real people across America who have told their friends and relatives and co-workers that they are gay." It is, as Mr. Goodheart eloquently put it, a matter of "simple exponential math."
This mathematical principle is evident in my own coming-out experience. Having been exposed to the idea of homosexuality from an early age, all of the (teenage) friends I've told so far frankly couldn't care less what orientation I was-- after they fell off their chairs, of course. Gays today no longer run as great a risk when coming out as gays even a decade ago did-- the risk of ostracization will only continue to decline as time goes on and gays become more and more accepted by society at large.
A Tumultuous but Certain Future
Gay rights has a rocky road ahead of it. In the wake of recent legislative and judicial decisions, both sides are scrambling to gain a definite advantage-- bombastic rhetoric is at a high point. However, the future of gay rights in the United States is all but certain. This republic has ever strived towards creating a nation based on the idealistic goals embodied in its founding charters, a country where all people are viewed as equal under the law despite the myriad differences that exist between them. I have no doubt that the United States will rise to this next challenge and outgrow the closemindedness inherent in homophobia, realizing in the end that day-- in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.-- when all people will be able to "sit down together at the table of brotherhood." History demands no less.
My thanks to izubachi, Wiccanpiper and many others for sparking the idea behind this node and causing me to organize my thoughts on the subject through many an interesting discussion.