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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3 Responses to On Complacency and Hollywood Endings

  1. Zia McCorgi says:

    I’ll be honest I have a long standing distaste and bias against court cases decided by standing. I hate standing decisions especially when they’ve specifically heard the testimony of those they’ve deemed lacking in standing.

    You make a good point this will undermine similar cases in the future and hit the anti-gay rights groups with their deep pockets hard but the same idea will apply when a group I’m more likely to agree with comes into the same setting. This isn’t contained to one isotope of the political spectrum and that gives me a lot of concern.

    I’d have been perfectly fine with the same outcome if they had just argued on the merits of the case. Call it a narrow ruling based on the unique vagaries of the state and that it had allowed gay marriage before the Prop 8 vote which created a disenfranchisement among those who had not gotten to the court houses in time. I didn’t need a broad ruling or even one that I upended Prop 8 (though that would be deeply upsetting) but I’d have preferred the case to be argued on its merits.

    We all know the same issue will essentially come up again to the court in a few more years. I’d have preferred a little more ground work be laid instead of a punt on standing.

    But as I said I have a dislike for standing cases.

    • Administrator says:

      Unfortunately the standing issue was an easy way out for the Court. If they had wanted to issue a broader ruling, I’m sure they would have, but I do think that in this case the standing issue is an important one. Remember that the whole point of standing is that the persons seeking relief are not actually affected by the law; if the positions were reversed and it was gay and lesbian private citizens seeking to put back gay marriage (or something), those people ARE directly affected by the law and therefore SHOULD have standing regardless of their status as citizens. What this says, in effect, is “if you are not gay, then gay marriage laws do not affect you, so shut up and go home.”

      That’s cool with me.

  2. Marcwolf says:

    Hi Kyell (or Mr Administrator)
    Yes – it’s that pesky wolf you met at Midfur.
    One of the interesting things in Australia is that a lot of notice is taken of what the US is doing esp. in the area of Gay Rights. And likewise the issue of Gay Marriage is also one of these things debated.

    Our government has always accepted the marital status of couples who were not married in Australia however only recently has the decision NOT to recognise same sex marital status who were married oversea’s.

    Now John Berry will soon be the US Ambassador to Australia and he does have a partner. I am not sure if he is married however it will be interesting if he is and what the response of our government will be with faced with that. Refusing to acknowledge Mr Berry’s marital status could be a big diplomatic goofup, or then might accept it just for him (and thus be seen as prejudicial to all others), or they might decide to allow existing same sex marriages to be acknowledged and thus put major pressure of allowing same sexes to marry in Australia.

    Certainly watching what is happening over there is giving the others in the world a lot of hope.
    Marc