Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Homophobia is global

Gay unions: Time to take a stand

From The Statesman
ND Batra

This is an election year and no politician who seeks public office can escape the question of gay marriage. President George W Bush has said unequivocally that marriage is between a man and a woman, but he is not running for office.

The Democrat presidential candidates, Ms Hillary Clinton and Mr Barack Obama, as well as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mr John McCain, are opposed to recognising gay marriage, though they favour civil unions. Nonetheless, they cannot ignore what the California Supreme Court ruled on 15 May.

Writing for a 4-3 majority, Chief Justice Ronald M George said: “In view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.”

The decision overturned California’s 1997 law (which was reaffirmed by the Californians’ 2000 statewide ballot initiative) banning same-sex marriage.California, of course, has bestowed the same rights and obligation on civil unions of same-sex couples as on traditional heterosexual married couples. The court majority, nonetheless, said that although couples bonded in a civil union or a traditional marriage have the same legal rights and obligations, the use of separate terminology for gay people and heterosexuals to establish a family was discriminatory and violated the constitutional right of equal protection.

Semantics can create psychological segregation.

The California Supreme Court drew inspiration from a 1948 inter-racial marriage case in which the court had ruled that the law banning inter-racial marriage was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “The right to marry represents the right of an individual to establish a legally recognized family with a person of one’s choice and, as such, is of fundamental significance both to society and to the individual,” Mr George wrote for the majority.

If the will of the people overwhelmingly expressed in popular ballot initiatives or legislative actions imposed a ban on same-sex marriage as it did on inter-racial marriages, it violated people’s fundamental right to form a family of choice.

Neither the will of the people nor tradition could supersede the Constitution. Democracy was much more than a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The will of the people can be become tyranny.

Homophobia is a global phenomenon.

In the face of scientific evidence, most Americans consider homosexuality to be a cultivated lifestyle and fondly hope that one can be weaned away or de-programmed out of it. Every year schools witness fierce battles between parents and teachers as to what kind of books children should read, which sometime instigates the banning of books related to homosexuality.

Homophobia has led to violence and the killing of innocents.

In 2006, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed its earlier decision that gay people had the legal right to marry, some people were jubilant, while others went crazy. It sounded like the beginning of a cultural war.

Nothing has divided the American people so painfully since the question of slavery as the issue of what to do with gay people and lesbians, who have been outing themselves in hordes and getting their faces in everywhere ~ in television sitcoms, school textbooks, magazines covers, dance floors and legislatures.

Soon after the court decision, stand-up comedian and talk-show hostess Ellen DeGeneres announced on her show that she was planning to get married to her long-time girlfriend, actress Portia de Rossi. The audience cheered her lustily.

Although Americans by and large oppose gay marriages, they are inclined to accept civil unions for same-sex couples that would grant them the same rights as heterosexuals have.

Vermont was the first state to recognise civil unions for same-sex couples but only after the state’s highest court ruled that gay people were being deprived of constitutionally guaranteed equal rights and enjoined the state legislature to eliminate this discrimination. The Vermont court did not rule on marriage, rather it ruled on equal rights for all citizens, which included healthcare benefits, inheritance and other rights that go with marriage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went to the extreme and challenged the very definition of marriage. If marriage is essentially a union of hearts, a commitment between two people ~ Evelyn and Madeleine, Ivan and Isaac ~ the concomitant rights and obligation of such a commitment must be respected.

But that’s not what the Bible or Koran says. That’s what the interpreters of the Constitution say.

It is only in Hollywood movies and mass media that you see the US as a homogeneous country. In reality, it has always been a house divided, which is its primary source of its dynamism and creativity.

Adding to the confusion, several states have passed laws that recognise only heterosexual marriages. So what would happen to a Californian gay married couple, let’s say with adopted children, when the family moves to a non-gay marriage state like Alabama?

The Californian Supreme Court seems to be saying that the state should choose a common nomenclature that captures the essence of both traditional marriage and civil union, so that gay people do not feel segregated or discriminated against. Maybe it is time to get rid of the ideologically and emotionally loaded words husband, wife and marriage and replace with them with spouse and domestic partnership.The final word on the meaning of marriage of course lies with the US Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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