Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Can we get a few more Vermonts?

Today, the Vermont state legislature overrode the governor's veto to legalize same sex marriage in the state. This is a monumental moment. Never before has a democratically elected body in the United States confirmed the rights of LGBT people to marry who they choose.

In Massachusetts, Iowa, and Connecticut, the courts have determined that marriage is a fundamental right for all people. (California did as well, but that decision was overturned by ballot measure). Now, for the first time, the representatives of the people of a state have passed a law making marriage legal for everyone. And while this might seem like something minor, it is hard to understate how important a shift this is, even if it did occur in a state as small and liberal as Vermont.

If you look historically at rights movements for minority and oppressed populations in the United States, there are generally two phases. In almost all recent cases, courts get the ball rolling. Brown v Board, for example, helped kickstart the Civil Rights movement, but it led to nearly a decade of unprecedented racial tension and violence. Ten years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, a law that cost the Democrats the south but also fundamentally changed this country's attitudes towards race. Today, racism is still pervasive, but it is almost universally frowned upon. Racial violence persisted, but it has gradually faded (though it still unquestionably exists). This, I argue, is largely because the people Americans chose to elect them passed a law granting further rights to African Americans and other racial minorities. It by no means fixed the problem; it did, however, help to fundamentally change the culture.

The women's rights movement, unfortunately, is a not-as-happy counterpoint to the Civil Rights movement. Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion, resulted in a huge backlash against the women's rights movement. The Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment to the constitution that would have guaranteed equal rights for women, failed largely because of anti-choice concerns that it would invalidate any restrictions on abortion.

This history is largely glossed over and hugely oversimplified due to the fact that no one will read more than a few paragraphs on a blog, but the point is this: court decisions do not necessarily mean that a minority group will gain any more stature in the long run. The civil rights movement was largely successful: legal segregation was ended, outright racial violence such as lynchings were minimized, and the culture was fundamentally changed, though a subtler and some would say more dangerous form of racism still exists. Women, on the other hand, continue to be beaten, raped, murdered, paid less, and kept out of positions of power. This can't all be blamed on any one thing, but the fact remains that the American people failed to ever stand up and have their legislature do much of anything to protect the rights of women. They did so for racial minorities, particularly African Americans. This is a huge difference.

Today, over 50% of violent hate crimes are committed against LGBT people. Court decisions that stand up for the right to marry are welcome, but I fear they will do nothing to change the views of the people. Without that change, real change on the marriage issue -- and real change on hate crimes legislation -- will never happen. We need more Vermonts, desperately. We need to pass ballot measures that support the right of all people to marry, not vice versa. We need municipalities and elected officials of all types to do the right thing here. And that, unfortunately, means the people need to do the work. Yes, that means you need to do the work.


Con Verse said...

excellent....but given vermont it does not surprise me...in fact, within my veil of ignorance I even thought all humans could marry in vermont.

Lightlight said...

And one day sanity will reign again in California, one hopes.