I’ve tweeted a lot about the Supreme Court decision striking down all bans on gay marriage, and I’m sure you guys all know what I think of it. I also want to say, as a sidebar to what this post is about, that I’m trying not to be generally smug or antagonistic to conservatives who fought gay marriage unless they specifically say something stupid (like “6/26 is our new 9/11 from a moral standpoint”).
But one conservative in particular has said a couple things which, given that he’s a justice of the Supreme Court, I feel are more deliberate trolling than genuinely missing the point. Regardless, Clarence Thomas’s dissent contains some thoughts that get to the heart of what is really wonderful about this decision, so I’m going to talk about the thoughts and not the man.
In Kennedy’s majority decision, he wrote, “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Clarence Thomas responded with a paragraph that has many people scratching their heads: “The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”
In one sense, his words are correct–people can be possessed of an innate dignity regardless of their external situation. But that is clearly not what Kennedy is writing about.
There is also a dignity that arises from the respect with which we treat each other. When we mock or belittle others, we attack their dignity. When we place them below us rather than treating them as equals, we devalue their dignity. And when that placement is codified into law, the government absolutely can affect someone’s dignity.
Dignity is what the fight for marriage has been about from the start. There are lots of practical considerations as well: hospital visits, estates, health care decisions, and almost literally a thousand other rights and agreements that are codified into marriage. But the case that the Supreme Court just decided was brought by an Ohio man whose home state would not allow him to be listed as the spouse on his husband’s death certificate (they were married in Maryland). That is a matter of respect, of acknowledging even after the practical considerations have been met that these two men shared a life and that the bond they shared was as important as that of any husband and wife.
The inability to solemnize our unions in the way of opposite-sex unions was often used to discount our relationships. One of the ironies of the fight against gay marriage was that the argument that homosexual relationships were “fleeting” or “impermanent” was used as justification to deny homosexual relationships any way to formalize a longer-term commitment. That argument, like so many others, fell away as more and more states legalized marriage, as people saw that the gay couple getting married around them were indeed as committed as their opposite-sex counterparts.
But to those who continue(d) to fight, make no mistake, this fight is about dignity. They do not want to see LGBT people accorded full status and equal rights in our society, because that carries with it the understanding that they are to be treated with the same dignity and respect of anyone else. In their eyes, LGBT people are beneath them because they live in a way not sanctioned by their God (the same, incidentally, applies to lots of other groups for many of those people), and they have clung to various markers of support from society, until each of those disappeared: public opinion, the Army’s ban and later “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the federal DOMA, state bans, and even the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision two years ago, which left the decision up to the states.
All of those are now history. The Supreme Court has ordered that according to the Constitution of the United States, any two people of whatever gender should be allowed to enter into the institution of marriage.
Love wins, and the prize is dignity.
Have some Dylan.
(For a terrific personal story on this theme, check out Frank Bruni’s NYT column.)