by Matt Foreman, Executive Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
I never expected New York’s high court to rule for us on marriage. For a lot of solid legal reasons, New York was never in the first tier for marriage test case litigation and I distinctly remember having the unpleasant task 10 years ago of dissuading couples from going to court to press the issue.By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection which is noblest, second, by imitation, which is easiest, and third, by experience, which is the bitterest. - Confucius
So when I read the summary Friday morning — that the state constitution doesn’t require the recognition of same-sex marriage — I expected the body of the decision to be scholarly and well-reasoned. I also expected that it would express sympathy for the real discrimination and hardships gay and lesbian couples face and that it would very likely urge the Legislature to act to address these injustices.
Boy, was I wrong. The opinion was more than poorly written, illogical and insulting to any legal mind, it was plainly homophobic and a prime example of the failure of too many allegedly thinking straight people — in this case judges — to grasp that we are fully and equally human.
“Intuition and experience suggest that a child benefits from having before his or her eyes, every day, living models of what both a man and a woman are like.” (When a judge has to resort to “intuition and experience” rather than legal precedent and fact, you know you’re in deep trouble.)
“The Legislature could find that unstable relationships between people of the opposite sex present a greater danger that children will be born into or grow up in unstable homes than is the case with same-sex couples, and thus that promoting stability in opposite-sex relationships will help children more.” (In other words, straight people need marriage more than we do because they can “become parents as a result of accident or impulse.” Score one for the gays?)
I could go on, but you get the point.
Relying on stereotyping (always a bad thing to do), one would be tempted to think this kind of crap could only be written by some upstate, right-wing political hack with no experience with gay people.
Wrong again. The author grew up in Manhattan and attended Stanford and Columbia. He clerked for Constance Baker Motley, a colleague of Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP and a solidly progressive judge. And get this: He teaches Sunday school at a church that is one of the nation’s most “welcoming and affirming” of gay people, where gay people are part and parcel of everything that happens, including the Sunday school program.
So how did this happen? The same way our parents, brothers and sisters, co-workers and friends can blithely vote for homophobic candidates and even anti-marriage constitutional amendments. The same way so many “decent” people feel no compunction about loudly guffawing at a joke about gay people. (Remember the joke industry Brokeback Mountain created?) The same way an elected official who’s been married for 30 years will look you in the eye, year after year, and say, “I’m behind you 100 percent but I need to be educated about this whole marriage issue.”
Bottom line: So many people who should know better, don’t. They do not get us, our lives or our love. In sum, they do not view us as fully or equally human.
It’s not all their fault, either. So many of us assume that because people know we’re gay, invite us over to dinner, thought Will & Grace was hysterical, comment on our lawns or welcome our partners home for the holidays.
Wrong, yet again. The reality is that most of us have never had a serious conversation about our lives with straight people close to us. (Case in point: I’ve been out to my parents for 26 years but I didn’t ask them to actually do something — like write a legislator — until three years ago.) People are astonished to find out that anti-gay discrimination is still legal in 33 states. They don’t believe you can be denied hospital visitation or control over the remains of someone you’ve been with for 50 years.
And equally important, they’re not going to stand up for us — at the polls, when they hear an ugly joke, or even when writing a legal opinion — unless we tell them why it’s essential and ask them to. Person to person, heart to heart. That needs to be our challenge and mission every day of the year.
As for the New York marriage opinion, the only good news is that the decision is so pathetic we won’t need to worry about thoughtful judges in other states relying on it — they’d be too embarrassed. And that’s exactly the way the majority of the New York Court of Appeals should feel the rest of their lives.