It’s tempting for some of us to look at the election of the country’s first African-American president and conclude that our days of bigotry and inequality are behind us. Come January, a black man who anchored his campaign to the uplifting themes of unity and change will take office, a watershed moment in not only our country’s history, but the history of all humankind. Without question, this election stands as a promising sign for anyone who strives for equality and harmony, and believes that what unites us truly is greater than what divides us. But while it’s clear that the racial and gender divides (thanks to Hillary Clinton and, yes, even Sarah Palin) have narrowed as we head into 2009, the passing of gay marriage bans in California, Florida and Arizona shows that we still have a long way to go on the road to true equality in this country.
In the months leading up to election day, I posed the following question several times but never received a legitimate answer: How is banning gay marriage anything but discrimination? Why is it acceptable in the 21st century for someone to have their right to marry taken away because of their sexual orientation? For that matter, why is it acceptable for anyone to have any right taken away from them for any reason? Opponents of gay marriage claim they want to protect American families, but I’ve never understood what exactly that means. If the gay couple down the street was allowed to place a ring on each other’s finger and be recognized by the state as a married couple, would they then creep down to your house in the middle of the night and eat your children? Would they crash your weekly Family Game Night? Superimpose themselves into your family photos? Slash the tires of your minivan? Opponents also talk about protecting the sanctity of marriage and only allowing couples who can procreate to get married. If that’s the case, shouldn’t straight couples who cheat on one another or elect to not have children have their marriage licenses revoked?
The bottom line is that these bans on gay marriage are just another form of intolerance. Telling two gay people that they can’t get married is no different than telling an interracial couple that they can’t get married. Perhaps even more discouraging is the ballot measure that was passed in Arkansas prohibiting “unmarried sexual partners” from adopting children or serving as foster parents. The initiative applied to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, but the intent here is crystal clear. Apparently it’s not enough to tell gay couples that they can’t get married; we also need to make it clear that they can never have a family, even when there are so many children in desperate need of a loving home.
I’m extremely hopeful that the election of Barack Obama will bring about a more open-minded approach to how we as a nation view the world and choose to legislate. After all, I’m not talking about “gay rights” here; these are human rights. Because Obama speaks so passionately about overcoming the bitter divisiveness that has fractured this country – black vs. white, men vs. women, democrats vs. republicans and, yes, gay vs. straight – many of us were hoping his message would help defeat the bigotry behind the initiatives in California, Florida, Arizona and Arkansas. Perhaps we got a little ahead of ourselves. Instead, it seems apparent that Obama won the White House on the strength of his economic message more than his social views. At the same time, the fact that so many young and first-time voters were so engaged in the election suggests that this more open-minded shift could be on the way.
Electing a transformational figure like Barack Obama looks like an encouraging first step, but that transformation is obviously still a work in progress.