May 8, 2008

Equality for Illinois

[img id="80580" align="alignleft"] As media operatives fished around in the goldfish bowl for a story last fall, they stumbled into proving to the world that historians can be newsworthy and even interesting.

Allan Tulchin, who holds a Ph.D in history from the U of C, published an eye-opening article in the Journal of Modern History arguing that homosexual relationships were not merely prevalent in Medieval Europe—they were socially sanctioned. Drawing from gravesites and written records, Tulchin determined that variations in household structures were accommodated by legal contracts sworn before a notary and witnesses, in which each party pledged to live together and share everything in common, including property. The media readily glossed this contract, which served blood brothers and lovers both, as a case of gay marriage 600 years ago, long before Massachusetts became a state.

Here was an island of love and tolerance afloat in a stormy sea of plague, strife, and fanaticism. For some, this story was a glimmer of hope from the benighted past; for others, it heralded a new effrontery to the cherished sanctum of marriage. Knights-errant picked up the torch and branded Tulchin an “intellectual terrorist” and “the worst historian,” among other such ignominious things.

Whether or not Tulchin is right matters little. Whether or not the analogy to civil unions is accurate matters less. What matters here is that history shows how deeply people are committed to sharing their lives with the ones they love or with whom they share important ties. Groups may regulate intimacy in more or less constrictive or elastic ways, but the feeling remains the same.

Everybody knows the trope about history—those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. What we don’t know, however, is which parts we ought to remember.

Perhaps we ought to remember the case of Mildred Loving, who passed away just days ago. Arrested in 1958 while at home with her husband Richard, Loving was tried and convicted for breaking anti-miscegenation laws by the state of Virginia, which banished her from the state for a period of 25 years. Only in 1967 did her plight merit the attention of the Supreme Court, which struck down such invidious discrimination once and for all in the ironically named Loving v. Virginia.

Yet how we forget! Interracial marriage no longer makes us throw a fit. There’s no longer much hullabaloo about the decay of civilization and the dissolution of traditional values because two people of different races fell in love with each other and wanted to share the benefits.

But the prejudicial fires burn all the same, albeit fueled by different objects, namely gays and lesbians. With the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1,138 rights guaranteed to married couples have been circumscribed in the eyes of the federal government.

Many states have opted to ban gay marriage or any same-sex unions by statute or through constitutional amendments. These cascading, reactionary effects of Massachusetts’s move have brought the question of marriage rights out into the open. It is an important opportunity to move toward a future where the legal sanction of a long-term relationship are shared by any two people who so wish.

Illinois House Bill 1826, the Illinois Religious Freedom and Civil Union Act, is a step in the right direction. This bill would create the possibility of civil unions for any two people.

Civil unions would allow partners not otherwise recognized by the state to make funeral arrangements, hold hospital visitation rights, enjoy state spousal benefits, enjoy domestic-violence protections, and receive tax relief at the state and local levels. This is a godsend for gay couples excluded from state recognition and barred from caring for and visiting their partners. It helps to simplify employment benefit structures by making legible what constitutes a “committed relationship.” Older couples with a widowed partner can enter civil unions without having to give up pension benefits from the deceased partner.

It’s a blight on our state history to bear the distinction of lacking, until 2006, any form of state anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation. Let’s let love go free.

Marshall Knudson is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literatures. His column appears on alternate Fridays.