On Complacency and Hollywood Endings

This is about today’s landmark SCOTUS rulings, really. Give me a moment here. Most of my chat has been on Twitter this morning and I’m still thinking in 140-character chunks.

Okay. So about…yeesh, just under fifteen years ago now, in 1998 (back when civil unions were barely a twinkle in the eye of the Vermont state legislature), there were a couple movies out you might have heard of: “Patch Adams” and “Pleasantville.” They didn’t have much in common except for a first letter; I like Robin Williams, but it was scenery-chewing Bad Robin on display in “Patch Adams,” while “Pleasantville” was a beautiful, poetic story of artistic (and sexual) awakening.

[WARNING: Spoilers for both movies ahead, but only sort of because there was no real surprise and also they are both teenagers now.]

The other thing they had in common, though, was something that drove me crazy: the “courtroom ending.” This is something that was briefly a trend for some reason, and I’m sure film historians would be able to pinpoint why it was a Thing in 1998, but I’m just glad it’s pretty much over. Both films ended with some authoritative body (a court, the town council) being asked to mull over the central question of the movie and then decisively ruling in favor of the Good Guys.

See, it’s not enough for the individual people to triumph. The WORLD must acknowledge their triumph and affirm for ALL PEOPLE that their way of life is best, and that the people who stood in their way are BAD and WRONG.

You see why I don’t like those endings much?

Fast forward fifteen years, past Vermont’s civil unions and Massachusetts’ marriage laws, past Prop 20 and Prop 8 and Iowa and the rest of New England and the 2012 elections and Minnesota, to this morning, when the Supreme Court ruled on whether the US Defense of Marriage Act (passed the year before Patch Adams and Pleasantville) could in fact allow the federal government to deny same-sex couples federal marriage benefits if they were legally married in their state, and on whether California’s Prop 8, restricting marriage to unions of a man and a woman(*) was constitutional.

* Sidebar: one reason the California proposition system needs to be overhauled is that anyone can write a proposition, and they are terrible at it. Prop 8 literally reads “Marriage shall be between a man and a woman,” or something simplistic like that, which allowed one completely legal law that recognized same-sex couples from other states and required that the state confer on them “all the benefits of marriage save only the designation “marriage.”” Now, while I and Kit benefited from this law–we are considered a married couple except we can’t use the word, which is annoying but not a huge deal–I have to recognize that it makes the proposition a joke from a legal standpoint. If we’re going to have laws, there should be some standard as to how well they’re written. It benefited us in this case, but the next one might not, and it makes me wonder how many well-intentioned propositions are easily skirted by corporations because the language is poor.

As you have heard by now, I’m sure, that provision of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause, and Prop 8 was dismissed for lack of standing. This is a Good Thing, broadly speaking. The Prop 8 ruling doesn’t do much; really it only says “private individuals can’t continue to clog up the legal system by appealing state laws that even the state officials don’t want to defend,” which is in and of itself a pretty good ruling–I mean, when you consider that the trend nowadays is toward state governments allowing marriage and private right-wing individuals having deep pockets to keep the issues alive in court. The DOMA ruling affirms the status of gays and lesbians (or, rather, people wishing to marry someone of the same gender) as a protected class and recognizes that DOMA’s purpose was basically to deny these people the same rights as other citizens.

So, a good day, yes? Yes. And yet there are people saying they are disappointed that the Court didn’t do more. There are people talking about “complacency,” as if pausing for a moment to celebrate what is a big step forward is in some way letting our guard down, as if this decision might be a big wooden horse and Justice Scalia will leap out in the midst of our celebration and drag us back to 1850. I can’t help but think of Patch Adams and Pleasantville when I hear these people talking. I can’t help but wonder if they really believe in that Hollywood ending, where the Court smashes down the oppressors and the Bad People are shown the error of their ways, and there is nothing more left for the Good People to do but enjoy the life they’ve fought for.

Listen. I know there is more to do. There are thirty-eight states in which my husband and I are “legal strangers” (a term I heard on Twitter today). There are several international couples I know who would love to have citizenship or at least residency available to the non-U.S. partner, and although immigration law took a big step forward today, that also is not resolved. There are still states where you can be fired for being gay, or evicted, or otherwise persecuted.

But there is no Hollywood ending to this story. Nobody is going to come down from above and decide who’s right and who’s wrong. The Court today did about as much as anyone could have reasonably hoped to advance the cause of gay rights. Asking for more was unrealistic; being angry that we didn’t get more is pointless. Wars are won over a long series of battles, and back in 1997, when DOMA was passed, that was (you may remember) in response to the news that Hawaii was considering legalizing same-sex marriage (which, ironically, still has not happened). That could be considered the first battle in this modern war over gay and lesbian rights, the latest iteration of a war that has been going on for centuries. And DOMA was a loss for our side. Vermont was a win, Massachusetts was a win, 2004 was a terrible loss. But the tide has turned, the victories are piling up, and the war has, I think you will agree, decisively turned our way. Even if the court rulings had gone against us, people were talking about that merely delaying the inevitable a few years longer, because victory does not come from a Court. It comes from all of us, from the people who make up this society, and the people now favor same-sex rights by a pretty overwhelming margin (even marriage is favored by a majority).

Celebrating a victory is not “complacency.” Celebrating a victory of this magnitude does not blind us to what remains to be done. Celebrating this victory is important, because it is a victory. It is the result of decades of hard work and it is a result that fifteen years ago would have seemed unimaginable. The celebration gives us the heart to keep fighting, to move on to those next thirty-eight states, and we will do that. Already my inbox is flooding with activist group e-mails telling me what a great day this is but we still have a lot to do won’t you donate to help us keep fighting?

The war isn’t over. But today, today, we are smiling and we are celebrating, and that is okay. We’ve earned it. Hug your partner or your friend and pat yourself on the back. Enjoy the day.

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