October 3, 2010

Winning in the court of public opinion

Justice on gay marriage should be pursued outside the courtroom

A decade into the 21st century, there remains a glaring blemish on the face of the much-championed American tolerance. Thankfully, the last remaining instances of government-sponsored discrimination are beginning to succumb to the force of inevitable justice. In August, a federal judge in California struck down the infamous Proposition 8, declaring it a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment and thus unconstitutional. Proposition 8 was, of course, a voter-approved definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, effectively banning gay marriage throughout the state.

The passage of Prop 8 in November 2008 was a huge setback for gay rights in America, especially since it was voted on by the people and approved. This demonstrated a significant lack of public support for the cause. However, today—much like during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s—the fight has been taken to the courtroom, where it has already met success and will likely continue to do so.

Not to rain on this well-earned parade, but I must acknowledge a potential downside with this path. Yes, the recent decision on Prop 8 is certainly a victory and a step forward. But this decision will be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, and even if the decision is upheld, it will not signify a shift in public opinion. It will only be a true victory for the gay and lesbian community when the American public accepts their equality, and, moreover, wills their equality. A victory through the courts is hollow if it is not backed by the people. Although I and many others support this decision, we are not yet in the majority.

But there is no reason to be cynical. Clearly the gay rights cause is not without support, especially in America’s youth. Somewhere between the tweets, status updates, and Lady Gaga music videos, many of the young online community stumbled upon this story. Fortunately, today there is very little stigma still attached to a straight endorsement of gay rights. As a result, the support for gay rights among the youth of our nation is overwhelming. However, the political power of that same cohort has yet to develop fully. Yes, it helped to elect Barack Obama, but he was certainly no victory for the gay community. He has declared publicly and explicitly that he does not support gay marriage. Whether that is how he really feels, or whether it is just a result of how he has read public opinion, is for another discussion. Yet it is relevant to note that while the young people that helped elect the president overwhelmingly support gay marriage, the president himself is bound by a more powerful political pressure to oppose it. Popular opinion must be shifted. And this shift will occur when America’s youth become America’s electorate.

So am I saying we need to just wait it out and eventually this offense will simply withdraw in a matter of time? Absolutely not. It is not enough to wait until the young population, sympathetic to the cause, becomes the voting majority. It must be made clear, today, that this legalized discrimination against the gay and lesbian community is an insufferable violation of basic American principles and human rights. We must prove to the uncertain that gay marriage in no way harms the state or its populace, or the institution of marriage. It can be safely assumed that many oppose gay marriage simply because that is “how they were raised.” Needless to say, the timid foundation of such an opinion leaves these people open to persuasion. The American public may seem fickle at times, but the individuals are, for the most part, reasonable.

However, it is absolutely vital that the battle for gay rights not be decided by a single judge in California, or by nine in Washington. It must be won in the hearts of the majority of Americans. It will hardly be a victory if a groom must be escorted down the aisle by the National Guard in a manner reminiscent of the Little Rock Nine.

—John Bradley is a first-year in the College.