The twentieth century marked a watershed in America’s attitudes towards human rights, with the erosion of barriers based upon sex, race and religion and the equalization of so many people. Future historians may well document the culmination of the movement towards racial equality as the November 4th, 20008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States.
However, those same historians will undoubtedly mark November 4th, 2008 as also being a historic moment in the next human rights struggle still being fought in the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century – sexual equality.
The shockingly bigoted results of the ballot proposals in California, Arizona, Arkansas and, worst of all, Florida should be a rallying cry for anyone who believes in fundamental human rights.
The telling narrative of how far America has evolved over the twentieth century was highlighted by President-elect Obama’s reference to the 108 year old Ann Nixon Cooper, “born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons, because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”
One item that Mr. Obama neglected to mention in his litany of the human rights denied to Ann Nixon Cooper was this: she could not have freely married a man of her choosing in her state of Georgia until 1967.
At the time of the United State Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v Virginia in 1967, sixteen states, including Georgia, had miscegenation laws in place which prohibited inter-racial marriages. As Chief Justice Warren stated in the Loving decision:
“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”
While it is laudable that the United States of America has managed to grow past its divisive and hateful history of racial bigotry, November 4th, 2008 should also be recognized for retrenching another divisive and hateful form of bigotry – homophobia.
On November 4th, the electorate of Florida voted to approve a state constitutional amendment that “no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized,” notably denying any Floridian who chooses a same-sex partner not just the right to use the term “marriage” to describe their union, but eliminating their ability to be recognized even under civil unions that do not rely on the “M-word”.
Mr. Obama has said in the past that his “job as President is going to be to make sure that the legal rights that have consequences on a day to day basis for loving same sex couples all across the country, that those rights are recognized and enforced” by his White House and Justice Department, we must now see if Mr. Obama’s America of hope and change will include ending all forms of discrimination.
During his first term, President-elect Obama will almost certainly have the responsibility to select one, if not more, justices to the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Obama taught constitutional law for twelve years. His parents’ 1961 marriage would have been illegal in many States. Will Mr. Obama consider these fact, and the importance of how his nominees may vote when the Court inevitably considers if marriage, and the entitlements, privileges and protections inherent therein, are constitutional rights that may not be stripped from the citizens of the United States in the “next” Loving v Virginia?
Can America move forward as a nation and end the government endorsed discrimination of same-sex couples?
One can only hope that Mr. Obama and his nominees will answer ‘Yes, We Can’.