#LoveWins Dignity

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.)

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7 Responses to #LoveWins Dignity

  1. Jordan Harvey says:

    This is beautiful to me. Human life is precious, and our dignity is one thing that we should all hold beyond price. To dignify the lives of others, to act with consideration and compassion towards others, and to live in the knowledge that you also receive such, I feel, is the first step towards attaining true nobility.

    I’m amazed that this decision has come down, and grateful that it has closed a door that would allow some to disavow and denigrate others simply because of a difference of who they wish to make their lives with.

  2. Illuvion says:

    There is a crucial fallacy imbedded in your portrayal of the defenders of traditional marriage. You make the error of conflating the dignity or worth of individuals with the dignity and worth of relationships. It does not follow from the claim that gay marriages are less consequential, less important, less essential to needs and flourishing of society than straight marriages that -gay people- as persons are inherently inferior to straight persons. This is a logical bridge that cannot be made.

    You also set up a strawman by assuming that any opposition to gay marriage and “equal rights” is based on the idea that gay people are not adhering to religious based moral standards. There is a perfectly valid and obvious secular argument for the supreme importance of traditional marriage: namely, its essential role in the construction and sustainment of society through providing the most healthy and reliable mechanism for child bearing and child raising; that is to say the producing of families and next generation of citizens. The family is, as Aristotle said, the essential unit of the city-state. Children and families are the primary reason why the government is in the marriage business to begin with. Gay unions are categorically incapable of fulfilling this role naturally in the same way that straight unions can. That does not make gay people less valuable. It does make the nature of gay relationships less essential or conducive to the interests of the state.

    If state sanctioned gay marriage (or any marriage) were indeed either a fundamental human right or a constitutional right, then the above argument would be irrelevant and a moot point. But I do not believe such a right exists and that marriage rights are ad hoc fabrications of activist judges, not the corollary of any constitutional provision.

    • Dmitry says:

      Partially I do agree with Illuvion arguments (mostly about dignity part), but there are many examples of homosexual families with a kids. There was such thing as artificial insemination, donor of sperm or even child adoption, what’s the difference? its the same cell of society.
      Does it really matter how to call it? “marriage”, “partnership” whatever
      else? Im sure it’s not about label for a peoples who really care.
      Kyell said “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” – so theres no other ways at States to salve this materialistic questions? (of course its better when its easier but *if you really care…*).
      I see the reason to be insulted from “Ohio man” situation, but again – its about material things, you won’t going to recieve your grand grand mother house if theres no will as well.

      • Kyell says:

        I’m not sure how to make the dignity thing clearer, but here goes. There are many definitions of the word. One is “sense of personal self-worth,” more or less. Another is “respective status or rank.” In other words, you may be a person with dignity in a situation without dignity–Thomas’s example of a person owned by another human being, for example. While the government can not, in fact, affect the first, it absolutely can affect the second. Kennedy, in his decision, was writing about the second kind of dignity. Thomas, in his dissent–which is a response to the majority opinion and therefore should be written using the majority opinion’s terms–chose to conflate the definitions and write about the first kind.

        As for the rest of it, Dmitry, I kind of thought the same way you did until I officiated a marriage in 2008. Seeing the community’s welcoming and acceptance of a couple and their bond really made a difference. Yes, the bond should just be about the love of two people, but we live in a community–many of us in several communities. And having a community say, “Well, you two are practically married” is still very different from the feeling of belonging you get from having a community say, “You are married.”

        For the materialistic questions, there are other ways, but they involve the drawing up of extensive legal documents, and there’s no compelling reason that same-sex couples should be made to do so much extra work to get the same result that opposite-sex couples get with one marriage license.

        • Dmitry says:

          I guess i can understand what kind of dignity you were talking about, but i see “respective status or rank” as a part of “self-worth” dignity. I think its like a part of public opinion (the way government? courts? thinking about YOU, and *you* is the key word here), i would lie if i would say that i dont care about it at all, but i can honesty say that its much more important to know your own worth, than to rely on public. Though, in this case situation does worth to be changed.
          Yeah, sometimes the best way to understand something is to be personaly involved. Thankfully i cannot feel what im loosing :)
          Yep yep, theres no reason in all this bureaucracy proccess, especially because theres absolutely NOTHING harmful is legalizing gay marrieges.

  3. Lee says:

    If so, should infertile couples be banned from marrying? Although I do believe that homosexual couples should be excluded from certain benefits of marriage (I don’t know what benefits are provided for married couples in USA, but married couples in Korea receive some tax-related benefits such as tax refund at the end of the year, for example) for the reasons you stated, I can’t see why same-sex marriage itself should be disallowed.

  4. Maus Merryjest says:

    It’s so strange hearing this version of this song sung by the original singer/songwriter. The first time I encountered this song, it was sung by Nana Mouskouri.

    That was quite a bizarre experience.