Fair warning: Political minefield ahead.
I've been contemplating this post, or one like it, for some time now, and have mostly put off writing it because I don't know that I have the words or the eloquence to convey these thoughts that are vitally important to me and that I have been refining in my own mind for so long, and because there are times when I feel that saying these thoughts badly would be worse than staying silent.
Several things have happened lately that have changed my mind about that; in fact, I have come to the conclusion that to not say anything would be immoral, that there comes a time when it's vital to stand up and speak. Thing the first. A friend recently put up election signs in his yard. They happened to be signs for Obama, and against Prop 8 (the proposition in California that, if passed, will create a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage). In the end, though, that is really neither here nor there in my story. What is important is that he posted his signs in his yard, and woke up the next morning not only to find them gone, but to find a Yes on Prop 8 sign posted smack dab in the middle of his lawn.
Thing the second. A colleague of mine got up one fine morning, threw on a t-shirt, and headed out to walk his seven-year-old daughter to his local public school. About halfway there, he realized he'd put on his Obama t-shirt, but figured ah, well, such is life. Apparently not so much. Upon arriving at school, another parent, seeing him across the school yard, shouted, with no apparent humor, "You're lucky you don't get shot wearing a shirt like that around here."
These incidents, combined with the slogans "freedom of religion" and "freedom of speech" appended to signs which support Prop 8, and combined with the latest rhetoric in the political campaigns which equates paying taxes with socialism, have me in a state of total horror.
Before I say more, let me tell you one thing about me that might sound silly, but you've got to know it. I believe, in the strongest possible way, in democracy. Not democrats, not republicans, not my senators or my representatives per se. But democracy as an institution. I am passionate about it, in a way that I don't talk about very often because it sounds idealistic or downright insane, but I truly believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. All people. Not just the ones I agree with, or whom I like, or with whom I'd share a beer, or to whom I'd entrust my children. But all of them. Even the ones I think are complete blithering idiots with the brains of half-grown newts. Because that's what democracy means. (I'll be honest here and say that I think that good public education is a vital part of a working democracy, but that's a rant for another time.) When I vote, it gives me chills. Real, live, honest-to-god chills. People all over the world have fought and still do fight and die for the right to do something that I, and women like me, have been able to take for granted in the United States for the past 85 years (and yes, it has only been 85 years for those of us with a uterus, but that, too, is for another time). And I believe firmly that we should all feel that way about government, and about what it's for, and about voting. I tend to think that if we did, things might be a little bit different around here.
Because frankly, a proposition like Prop 8 is appalling. Not just if one is a supporter of gay rights (which I happen to be). I think that there are plenty of people out there who may think that gay marriage is a wrong thing for any one of a number of reasons who should still be terrified at the notion of creating a constitutional amendment to tell consenting adults how to conduct their private lives. A constitutional amendment. To me, this is one of the most upsetting things I've seen happen in politics in a long time. This is using one of our most powerful legal constructs to impose morals upon the population (Prohibition comes to mind as a lovely historical example of how well this works). Constitutions, state and federal, exist to protect the rights of all citizens. They do not exist to abrogate those rights.
Moreover, while laws in our nation exist to protect our rights as citizens, they do not exist to protect our sensibilities. It is not the job of law to protect us from seeing people whose lives offend us. A belief in the freedom of speech and of the right of our citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must apply equally to all members of our society, or it's a farce. So it seems to me that this particular proposition is not a referendum on marriage; it is, at its heart, a referendum on democracy, and on freedom and rights. Do we feel that the laws of our nation, and the voice of our people, exist to protect the rights of all citizens, or not?
I think that what it boils down to for me is this. With rights come obligations. The right to vote, the right to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, and the freedom to believe as we will, those rights are matched by obligations of equal depth and breadth. And at the core, those obligations come down to the obligation to support and uphold those social structures which give us those rights in the first place. Education, so our population can read and understand those matters put before them in the vote; health care, so all the people of this nation can participate in the possibilities offered by an open society; law and safety enforcement, so that we can safely exercise our freedoms. These things aren't free. And for them to mean anything at all, they must be available to everyone. Even those people whom we don't much like, or with whom we don't agree.
Because the day may come when we are the people with whom others don't agree, and what leg do we have to stand on then? If we do it right, then we have the strength of a society that protects the rights and freedoms of all citizens, however poor or marginalized. We have a society that acknowledges that its history is not a history of shared religion, or shared language or shared race or shared gender, but rather a firm and unbending belief in the rights of individuals under the law, and in the obligations of those individuals to the whole.