Gays and straights should both feel proud this year

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004

You don't have to be gay to feel proud during this June's gay pride celebrations. Anyone who believes in equality can be proud that the United States has begun writing a new chapter in our history.

In a landmark ruling last June, the Supreme Court struck down archaic laws that criminalized gay and lesbian relationships in 13 states. In a strongly worded majority opinion that included justices appointed by four presidents (including Republicans Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush), the court ruled that the Constitution protects the right to form intimate relationships. The court also ruled that lesbians and gay men cannot be singled out for punishment in situations where heterosexuals cannot be.

That was a groundbreaking decision, but another legal milestone soon followed. Last Nov. 18, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to restrict marriage to only opposite-sex couples. As a result, gay and lesbian couples began marrying in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004, the day the ruling went into effect.

While these decisions have not been popular with everyone, a person's civil rights should not be subject to a popularity contest. We are a country where the majority rules, but where minorities still have rights and protections.

What's more, the principles these cases underscored apply to all Americans.

In the Texas case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision a year ago, police had actually arrested two gay men in the privacy of their home. You don't have to be a champion of lesbian and gay rights to recognize that the government should not interfere in people's personal lives.

And these decisions strengthened the principle of the separation of church and state. At least in Massachusetts, courts have said that while religious institutions are free to make their own rules about marriage, every couple, gay or straight, should have access to the same rights and responsibilities under the law.

Anti-gay leaders denounced both landmark court decisions on gay rights over the last year as examples of "judicial activism." But when some complain about judicial activism, they really are just complaining about court decisions they don't like. They seem offended by having to share the rights and protections that they enjoy with others who live, think and believe differently.

It is troubling that some politicians are trying to take advantage of this anti-gay backlash. For example, President Bush has pushed for the passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban any form of recognition for lesbian and gay relationships - not just marriage, but also other arrangements such as civil unions. If passed, it would be a dramatic reversal of our country's progress in ensuring equality for all.

So while there is much to be proud of, we must look ahead to next year.

Will the breakthroughs for marriage equality that we have seen over the last 12 months take root elsewhere? And will Americans reject mean-spirited, divisive attempts to pass discriminatory constitutional amendments at the polls and in their communities?

If those two things happen, we will have even more to be proud of one year from now.

• Christopher Ott is a gay-issues writer in Madison, Wis. He wrote this piece for the Progressive Media Project, affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; e-mail: pmproj@progressive.org.



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