Forty-four years nearly to the day after drag queens stood their ground against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, sparking rioting in New York City and marking the beginning of America’s gay rights movement, our nation’s highest court at last held that a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Amazingly, since Stonewall, the question of LGBT rights has evolved from whether homosexuals should have any place in our society to whether gay and lesbian couples should be accorded equal marital stature.
Whenever one group discriminates against another — keeping its members out of a club, a public facility or an institution — it often boils down to a visceral, negative response to something unfamiliar. I call this the “ick.” Indeed, the “ick” is often at the base of the politics of exclusion. Just this March, for example, a young woman at an anti-same-sex-marriage rally in Washington was asked to write down, in her own words, why she was there. Her answer: “I can’t see myself being with a woman. Eww.”
Frankly, as a gay man, I can’t see myself being with one, either. But it’s usually not gays who write the laws. If this woman were in Congress, her personal discomfort might infect her thinking — and her lawmaking. Gays kissing? Ick.
The Supreme Court may be the ultimate interpreter of the rules, but it is still the court of public opinion that matters. And public opinion has shifted — 51 percent of Americans now favor same-sex marriage, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, and 42 percent oppose it. Reflecting this slim majority, Wednesday’s 5 to 4 ruling made clear that “ick” is not a proper basis for constitutional jurisprudence. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his opinion, warned against this specifically, noting that when “determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus . . . ‘[d]iscriminations of an unusual character’ especially require careful consideration.” Kennedy was not prepared to allow the “ick” to remain law, knowing that the result is often embarrassing when judged by history.
For more than 70 years, I’ve watched the “ick” infect American life in a variety of ways and concluded that it’s little more than a function of unfamiliarity. Once upon a time, you never saw two men kissing — for that, you’d have to visit an adult video store.
Even I was taken aback the first time I saw two men being affectionate in public. The “ick” runs deep, instilling unease even in those for whom an act is natural. When I was a child, I knew that my sexuality was not something I could reveal to others. Later, as a young actor, I knew I could not be open about it without serious consequences for my career. It wasn’t until 2005 — when I was in my late 60s — that I came out.
But the “ick” goes beyond LGBT issues. It once blocked public displays of interracial affection. A white person didn’t kiss a black person on American television until 1968 — on “Star Trek,” when Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura. That was quite controversial. Indeed, some two decades before that kiss, when I was growing up in California, it was illegal for Asians and whites to marry.
Now I’m married to a white dude. How times have changed!
Anti-miscegenation laws of the last century were based on appeals to the “natural” order, another way of saying that the alternative is icky. The trial judge in the case Loving v. Virginia , which overturned such laws in 1967 — yes, less than 50 years ago — defended marital segregation. He wrote: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The Virginia law struck down in Loving was called the Racial Integrity Act.Sound familiar? Kennedy also took note of this naming convention: “The stated purpose of the law was to promote an ‘interest in protecting the traditional moral teachings reflected in heterosexual-only marriage laws.’ Were there any doubt of this far-reaching purpose, the title of the Act confirms it: The Defense of Marriage.” DOMA, like the Racial Integrity Act, by its very name suggests a desire to protect marriage from some kind of social pollution.
To help justify the “ick,” many, like that judge in Loving, turn to the Bible, perhaps because science doesn’t lead to the conclusion that homosexuality is unnatural. As one popular saying goes, homosexuality is found in more than 400 species, but homophobia in only one. But references to the Bible or other religious texts are not a solid footing on which to base notions of traditional marriage. Concerns about the separation of church and state aside, traditional marriage has never been what its homophobic proponents believe. As author Ken O’Neill reminds us, the fact that you can’t sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means we’ve already redefined marriage.
And it is the height of irony that the Mormon Church, once known for polygamy, bankrolled the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 campaign as a champion of traditional marriage. (The Supreme Court declined to rule on a Prop 8 case, so same-sex marriages in California will continue.)
Marriage wasn’t the only institution attacked by the “ick.” It was used once to justify segregation in the U.S. military. A study of proposed racial integration of the Navy in the 1940s drew conclusions about interracial mixing that sound much like the hand-wringing over gay men in close quarters with straight men during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era:
“Men on board ship live in particularly close association; in their messes, one man sits beside another; their hammocks or bunks are close together; in their common tasks they work side by side; and in particular tasks such as those of a gun’s crew, they form a closely knit, highly coordinated team. How many white men would choose, of their own accord that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, at mess, and in a gun’s crew should be of another race?”
These words are outrageous today, but only because we no longer react with disgust at the notion of the races working and sleeping side by side. Because social mores change with each generation, the “ick” is not particularly effective at preventing changes to our institutions. Importantly, same-sex marriage is supported by a strong majority of young people: A recent Field Poll in California showed that 78 percent of voters under 39 favor marriage equality.
Future generations will shake their heads at how narrow, fearful and ignorant we sounded today debating DOMA. Happily, the majority of our justices understood this and did not permit the “ick” to stick.
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