Much has been made of President Obama’s oft-quoted comment that his views on marriage equality were “evolving.” Until this week, when apparently, they’d “evolved.”
I’m not entirely certain what the President meant by this turn of phrase (I know! I cannae read his mind! Imagine!), particularly given his public support for such equality as far back as 1996, but I suspect the evolution was for him more political than personal. This doesn’t mean that I think Mr. Obama’s motives were craven — merely careful. I didn’t love it when he came up with the “evolving” line, but I think I understood it. And I am proud beyond measure that he went ahead and finished the process the other day.
But here’s the thing, and it’s a thing that we supporters of equal rights often fail to note: We’ve all been evolving, for years.
Anyone over the age of 30 can remember a time when the mere idea of marriage equality was inconceivable — because most Americans still thought the gay and lesbian community was, at the very least, not quite right. I feel really, really safe in saying that the vast majority of those of us now staunchly supporting gay rights had to just plain get over ourselves at some point (and I most certainly include gay folks here. Internalized homophobia is no less -phobic than the external kind).
Our collective evolution is built on the foundations laid by the brave men of Stonewall; the work of civil rights pioneers like Harvey Milk, Franklin E. Kamney, Phyllis Lyon, and Del Martin; the ill-advised bigotry of Anita Bryant; the ravages of the AIDS years; the drip-drip-drip of pop culture and examples of well-known figures (Joe Biden was right about Will and Grace, and don’t underestimate Ellen); the horrifying murder of Matthew Shepard; the rash of teen suicides; and through it all, growing numbers of individuals telling the truth about who they are.
Yesterday, another brick was laid in that foundation:
…Nine gay and lesbian couples each presented completed forms and identification to a clerk at the local Register of Deeds office in Winston-Salem, but were refused because state law recognizes only heterosexual couples.
…Mary Jamis, 52, of Mocksville, and a heterosexual friend who joined the protest… were arrested after they blocked the entrance to the marriage license office and refused to leave more than 30 minutes after closing time.
A county administrator tried to talk the women into leaving and avoiding arrest, but the two insisted they would stay unless Jamis was issued a marriage license for her and her partner, Starr Johnson, 48.
A half dozen female officers then crowded around [them and] asked them to stand, handcuffed them and led them out a side door and into a van to be booked at the county sheriff’s department across the street.
As North Carolina and the other 29 states with anti-marriage equality amendments prove: We cannot simply say things should be right and then expect them to Become Right. There is no magic bullet to undoing bigotry. It’s a long, slow slog.
But on the same day that Mr. Obama evolved, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee announced the the bi-partisan decision to take up the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA): “Workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is reprehensible,” said committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin, “and has no place in our nation.”
Consider, too, the reactions of the people watching the protest unfold in Winston-Salem yesterday:
“Can you at least acknowledge on here that you’re denying it and the date?” [one protester] asked, his ring-bearing left hand trembling. The clerk complied. Other clerks smiled sheepishly or shook the hands extended to them by couples they had turned away.
…[A straight woman taking out a license at the same time] said she did not object to same-sex couples being allowed to wed.
“Why not? I don’t think it’s really anybody’s business,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the government’s business to be telling people what to do with their private lives.”
As in any enormous social shift, the learning and the changing and the growing all come in layers upon layers. Every evolution leads to the next, every statement makes others possible, every heart opened — opens others.
And some statements are a lot louder than others.
Like when the President of the United States says “Same sex couples should be able to get married.”
I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more civil disobedience, and a lot more arrests, in the days and weeks to come. I have a feeling that what the President did on Wednesday was open the floodgates, out of which will flow immeasurable pent up energy, all aimed at genuinely history-altering events.
And speaking of which: That throw-away reference I made up there to Anita Bryant? That was a workplace discrimination fight. She wanted to keep gay teachers out of schools.
And today we have US Senators saying discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (!) “is reprehensible and has no place in our nation.”
Yep, we’re all evolving.
Thank God, and thank each and every person who’s had a part.
Emily L. Hauser has been a freelance writer for 20 years. She has contributed to publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News, covering topics ranging from Israel/Palestine and domestic politics, to women’s issues and the occasional burst of geekery. She is a regular columnist at The Daily Beast’s Open Zion, and blogs at Emily L. Hauser In My Head. Follow her on Twitter at @emilylhauser.
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