Sunday, November 16, 2008

Demonstrating

Living in the Bible belt has been an educational experience for me. As a Midwestern transplant, I did not really understand what people meant by the term Bible belt. That was until I moved down here. I reside in a state that bans gay couples from marrying, inheritance, civil unions, from just about anything, and yet heterosexual 16 year old first cousins can get hitched with parental approval. To say this place does not represent my values would be putting it lightly. When I discovered that there was going to be a demonstration in my city against the anti-gay marriage votes, particularly the one in California, I did something I have not done since my undergraduate years. I went to a demonstration.

I felt it was important for me to go to this demonstration. I was upset at the vote in California (indeed, it put a damper on my election night celebrations). Moreover, I went because I specifically wanted to show that not everyone who supports gay rights is gay. There are straight people, such as myself, who believe everyone should be treated equally under the law.

What I noticed about the demonstration (a rally march, really), which attracted a few hundred people, was how remarkably diverse it was. Whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, gay, straight, families, single and married people. For a part of the country polluted with Confederate battle flags on vehicles and front yards (something I still cannot get used to), I was heartened by this diversity, although I am certain many of these folks came from out of town to show their support (a couple mentioned that they drove over an hour because it was the closest place they could find that would even tolerate a gay rights march). The next thing I noticed was how upset people I encountered were about the vote in California. It seems strange, seeing how I live in a state that banned gay marriage several years ago, but everyone, including myself, fully expected or hoped the California vote would fail. It was close, of course, but sadly it passed. It was a huge deflating moment because if gay rights cannot succeed in a place like California it means that it is going to be a long, long time before it succeeds anywhere else.

Naturally, some of this is overstated because so much is invested in the marriage issue. California already has gay rights legislation that protects members of the LGBT community from discrimination and are included in the state's anti-hate laws. But marriage is an issue that touches people differently, particularly religious conservatives who see the institution in the same way members of the politburo once looked at five year plans.

To those, like some of the less kindly respondents to my previous posts on the issue, who say this is just a vote and we should respect it, or not anger these forces, well, I obviously disagree. I disagree for a couple of major reasons. One, the anti-gay marriage votes are the product of gays and lesbians doing nothing more than trying to exercise the same rights as straight people. The very thought or notion that I should deny a gay couple from marrying because they are gay (even as consenting, loving adults) seems at best petty and at worst utterly hateful. Since when was it "special" for two consenting adults to get married? Do we consider it special rights to allow gay people to vote or run for office? The fault rests squarely with the backlash and those religious people, and they are overwhelmingly motivated by religion, who put these votes on the ballot to deny rights to the people they fear and loathe.

The reasoning for this fear should be obvious for anyone who has had the misfortune of coming from one of these households. Christianity, like the other Abrahamic religions, has a long and sordid history of hatred of homosexuals. In the Book of Leviticus, gays and lesbians are commanded to be physically eradicated. In the first Book of Corinthians, Paul compares gays to drunkards, liars, and thieves. In England, until the 19th century, gays and lesbians could be executed, and until recent times being gay was considered a crime in our society (and in every case religion was the rationale by which these actions were justified). If someone believes the the words in the Bible are true and inspired by a creator, the natural conclusion is to want to make sure they do everything possible to deny the rights (and to some, if they had it their way, much more) to those that their religion claims are destined for eternal damnation.

Be that as it may, I personally do not care what the Bible says. In fact, it should be of no consequence to civil law in this country, thanks to Madison's inclusion of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. If one wants to sincerely believe that gay people are less than human, and use religion to justify such a view, our society gives them the right to think as they please. They are not welcome to bring that hatred out of their books, minds, and churches, and force it into our lives through the power of the state. For this alone, the use of state power for religious ends should automatically be suspect.

Secondly, regardless of one's religious beliefs, each state and our federal constitution gives us equal protection and treatment under the law. This is what prevents people from taking votes to exclude Jews from having citizenship. It was equal protection that became the legal enabler to overturn state miscegenation laws, which was supported back in the day by religionists who cited the Tower of Babel story in the Bible (not surprisingly, these are the same people who today use the Bible to oppose gay marriage). If we cannot agree to treat each other equally under the law, then guaranteeing such protection is meaningless. These votes make a mockery of it.

Arguments aside, the saddest part, after attending what I thought was a successful demonstration, was coming home, getting online, and reading the comments on the local news story about the event. About two-thirds were negative (and predominantly locals), and filled with such Christian and tolerant remarks about "perverts," "sodomites," "freaks and liberals," as well as the periodic complaint about how anyone could dare to do such an awful thing as demonstrate (I am sure Madison would find that line amusing when he was writing the freedom of assembly clause in the First Amendment). I know I am on a side that ultimately will win, as the progress of history and our political culture has shifted on this issue in the last couple of decades in a way that would have been unthinkable even a few generations ago. However, what I do not know is when our history will turn on these issues. Here is to hoping it is closer to 1789 than 1814.

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