The Peanut Gallery
"You don’t want to listen to CNN right now," my husband warned me Tuesday afternoon. "You’ll just get mad. They’re covering the anti-gay side of the demonstrations -- including some black preacher going on about how ’Those people say they’re oppressed, but their oppression ain’t been nothin’ like ours.’ "
He was right. That kind of rhetoric does get me mad. What’s the message behind it, exactly? That unless you reach Degree X on the Oppress-O-Meter, the fact that your lives and your liberties have been trampled under the law means nothing? That one kind of oppression calls for justice, but another is Just the Way it Is, and uppity faggots ought to shut the hell up?
And anyway, who ever said that gays and blacks had suffered in the exact same ways? My ancestors were not slaves, no. But many of them were Irish -- and they faced the economic hardships of being denied employment as well as the social rejection of being derided as subhuman. Now, don’t try and tell me that African Americans didn’t have those exact same experiences back in the day, and that the bias aimed at blacks and gays don’t have many, many parallels.
In other words, our group experiences with bigotry don’t have to be the same to cry out for remedy. Gays were never subjected to Jim Crow laws? Well, sure they were. Black gays were. And if you want to talk about who has been terrorized and demonized and attacked and murdered, let’s just take a deep breath and think about all the denunciations gays have endured from the floors of state and federal legislatures and pulpits. Let’s think about all the killers and assailants who took those words of condemnation to heart and set out to go a-hunting, buoyed up with a sense that they were doing The Lord’s Work and serving a higher cause by shedding the blood of their man-loving brethren. Maybe we could also acknowledge that black preachers stood at many of those pulpits with their gay-bashing messages.
Want to discuss institutionalized torture for minorities and who’s had it inflicted on them? Well let’s see, now, I can’t recall ever hearing about racial minorities being locked up in asylums or subjected to electroshock "therapy" simply for being who and what they were. I can’t recall racial minorities ever having to mount a campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to revise its medical literature and remove race from its list of mental disorders.
No, the oppression of gays has not been exactly the same as the oppression of blacks, though in many respects it has been similar to the point of being identical. In crucial respects, anti-black violence and attitudes have been worse. But by the same token, anti-gay violence and attitudes have been worse in other ways. What black teen has ever been driven from his home by his own parents because of his race or told by his pastor that he was going to burn in Hell because of his innate nature? And yet gays of all skin tones still experience these outrages today, right now, in the 21st century. In America.
What sense has it ever made... except cynical political sense... for any oppressed people to throw in with the oppressors against another people? But they do, and they even go so far as to claim that other oppressed people don’t possess a distinct and genuine identity at all. Which brings me to what my husband said next.
"He’s also playing the ’gay is a choice’ card," my husband added. "He said something like, ’When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I see a black man. I can’t change that.’ "
Sure I get mad when I hear insulting and ignorant words like that, just as I got mad when Herman Cain, during his unsuccessful bid to be anointed the Republican candidate in last year’s presidential race, told a talk show host that his skin color doesn’t "wash off" -- as though to suggest that my lovely lavender soul, queer as the day is long, could be scrubbed to some lighter shade of heterosexual if I just applied the right kind of soap.
I’m trying to keep myself calm, but it’s not so easy: This week marks the first time in a decade that the Supreme Court has taken up major cases affecting GLBT Americans and our families. As happens every time something major concerning gays, our rights, and our families, comes up in politics, the gay-haters have poured out of the woodwork, and the freedom fighters have emerged to do sign-carrying, hymn-singing, scream-yourself-hoarse battle with them.
At least this time it’s a double-Bingo proposition and we get twice the legal bang for our street-storming buck, because this week the Court takes up two cases affecting GLBTs. One is about the voter-approved amendment Proposition 8, which wrote discrimination into the California constitution and stripped same-sex families of their previously existing right to wed. The other is about DOMA, the so-called "Defense of Marriage" Act, an inaptly titled law from 1996 that attacks marriages between same-sex couples by denying us any federal recognition.
In both cases, lower courts have struck the measures down as unconstitutional. Prop 8 singles out gays and lesbians for denial of rights that everyone else freely enjoys; this violates our guarantee of equal protection under the law. DOMA not only violates the very same guarantee, but also denies states the right to determine their own laws on the matter.
It’s frustrating to keep finding oneself in the same place over and over again. Why are my rights as an American citizen repeatedly subject to judicial scrutiny? Why is my family continually under the legal lens of the courts? Why are people like me the subject, time and again, of ballot box proxy wars between the zealously religious and the rationally secular?
I’ve covered all the arguments from the anti-gay side for years in articles written for EDGE. (Not a single one of them has ever made a lick of sense.) I’ve also covered the stories of gay individuals and families that have been sidelined, threatened, attacked, subjected to soulless cruelties by bureaucracies and heartless cruelties by gay-bashing bigots. The enemies that stand on our backs for profit and status (hello, NOM! How do you do, Catholic Bishops?) declare themselves loving and without a prejudiced bone in their body, but it’s hard to believe given the zest with which they prosecute their anti-gay arguments... and persecute those of us who happen to love others of the same gender.
And now, even now, as the tide of history has turned (all the anti-gay ballot initiatives on the ballot last November lost... not that our rights should have been put to a vote in the first place), here we are once more, having to stand up in court and argue one more time for our full and equal status before the law of the land.
I’m a writer and so, like any other commentator, I am in the peanut gallery where I examine events, make predictions, and add my voice to the cacophony. That’s great when it’s just your day job. But then I go home at night and even though I am legally married in my home state, the federal government does not recognize that my husband is my husband. I prepare my federal tax return as a "single" person and file jointly with my spouse for state taxes. When it comes to America, the Land of the Free, I have been living my entire life in the peanut gallery, jostling elbow to rhetorical elbow with people whose vocabularies are stuffed with phrases like, "Some of my best friends are gay" ... but whose actions against gays are hostile to the point of needlessly and maliciously punitive.
A few decades of this sets your nerves on edge, that’s all I’m saying.
I more than half expect the court to leave Prop 8 in place, both out of an outmoded set of "conservative" values (big, intrusive government is bad when it intervenes to help people, but good when it restricts their liberties) and out of a similarly incomplete sense of what constitutes true democratic action (a bare majority of California voters elected to throw their peers and neighbors under the anti-equality bus in 2008, but that’s how the Majority Rules cookie crumbles). Already, in Tuesday’s daylong Prop 8 hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia (a dissenter in 1996 when the court struck down a similar anti-gay Colorado state amendment) demanded to know just when, exactly, denying some families access (but not others) to the protections and benefits of legal marriage "became unconstitutional."
"I’m curious, when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?" Scalia asked conservative legal superstar Ted Olson, the same lawyer who successfully pressed George W. Bush’s case in 2000 in Bush v. Gore and who now represents same-sex families looking for equality before the law. "1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted?"
Continued Scalia, "When -- when -- when did the law become this?"
Prop 8 marked the first time in history that a minority’s existing rights were plucked from their grasp by a majority. The vote followed months of outright lies and calculated fear mongering that played on prejudice and deep-seated fears, all boiling down to a presumption that it’s better to be straight than gay. (One particularly effective lie: Telling parents that if same-sex couples were allowed marriage, then children would somehow be turned queer. Oh my god! Johnny could be turned gay! A fate worse than death!! Really? Even if it were possible, I mean... really? But nervous voters bought it.)
Even if the court upholds Prop 8, there’s simply no way -- even under Roberts, the Chief Justice who brought us the crazily delusional Citizens United ruling -- it can fail to strike down DOMA. Like anti-gay group the National Organization for Marriage, DOMA is named with belligerently deliberate deceptiveness. NOM is actually against marriage because it does nothing to "protect" heterosexual marriages (when was the last time NOM insisted a GOP candidate sign a pledge to ban divorce?), focusing instead on the single-minded mission of preventing gays and lesbians from gaining access to the legal tools and resources of the legal marriage contract.
DOMA, similarly, "defends" not a single straight union; all it does is make life significantly harder and more expensive for same-sex couples, especially those with children.
"I can’t begin to describe the utter frustration when you are holding a feverish infant with whooping cough in the middle of the night, or your seven-year-old boy sobbing in pain from breaking his arm in a bicycle fall, or your four-year-old girl bleeding from accidentally putting her arm through a window, and emergency room staff are debating who the ’real’ mother is and whether or not you have the ’right’ to get the child treated," Christine Allen, a grandmother who has been in a same-sex life partnership for nearly three decades, was quoted as saying in an ABC News profile. "If you are married, you automatically have a legal right to that child and things proceed in a normal manner."
DOMA also punishes gay and lesbian Americans who fall in love with a person of the same gender who happens to hail from another nation. Straight people can sponsor their foreign spouses, bring them here to live and work and share the life of their American husband or wife; not so the male life partners of American men, or the female mates of American women.
The Catholic Church once produced a video decrying marriage equality because, the Church claimed, more women would end up impoverished in their later years if men could marry other men instead of being forced to marry women. But the Catholic bishops who so fervently decry our relationships have no comment when DOMA denies federal benefits such as Social Security or pensions to the families of gay and lesbian citizens, or when DOMA ensures that the tax code will penalize surviving gay and lesbian spouses with confiscatory inheritance taxes that rob elders of their homes. Pity the poor straight woman who lost her chance to harness a gay man, I guess, but woe unto the committed couples of the same gender. Nice one. Nice example of "Christian charity."
The worst part of the peanut gallery is having to be here at all. I have other things to do, you know. I have a life, and not just a "lifestyle." I have a home and a husband and I’d really rather just focus on the business of living and working and not feel as though I have to justify my very existence every election cycle -- or every decade or so when the Supreme Court deigns to hear a little something about people like me, and families like mine.
There’s some talk that the court might actually side step at least one of the cases, the one dealing with Prop 8. If so, the appellate court verdict that’s already been issued would remain in effect, and marriage rights in California would probably be restored.
Personally, I think there could be worse outcomes. In fact, I would cheer loudly if the court did decline to rule. In fact, I would purely love it if the state and the churches alike would just get their damn fingers out of my pie.