Friday, May 16, 2008

Gay Marriage, Massachusetts, and Harry Truman

This was one of the first things I posted when I started here, about a year after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling; I'm re-posting it today in honor of the California Supreme Court decision. I don't know if our experience will be like that of Massachusetts, but I sure hope so...and I think we have reason to be optimistic.

My father, who was a civil rights activist in Mississippi in the mid-'60s, is was fond of citing Truman desegregating the military through Executive Order 9981 as a paradigm for civil rights action. Racism and bureaucratic inertia had always defeated efforts to integrate the armed forces, and even after Truman signed the order it took 5 years before they were fully integrated. Once it happened, though, the strife many had predicted never materialized; black and white served together in relative, if not perfect, harmony--more harmony, certainly, than there was in American society as a whole.

My father's point was that in matters of basic human rights, sometimes the action has to precede public support; that when fundamental change is presented as a fait accompli, opinion swings around to embrace it; and that if we wait to change things until everyone agrees it'll never happen.

I have always been a little skeptical of this view--not least because it is at the root of a liberal reliance on top-down solutions that, while never as pervasive as caricature would have it, gave the right a populist fig leaf for their anti-equality agenda. The ultimate fiasco for this kind of approach was court-ordered busing, which crystallized the white rage that was eventually manifest in the phenomenon of Reagan Democrats. This is not to say that it was the wrong thing to do; only that it didn't play out the way supporters had hoped.

But now we have another example to vindicate my father's view of things: the Massachusetts experience with gay marriage.

Last month, a year or so after the Massachusetts Supreme Court invalidated the state's marriage laws (effectively establishing same-sex marriage in the state), the Massachusetts legislature voted 157 - 39 against a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. This is a bill that passed 102 - 92 just last year. Meanwhile, polls show that something like 56% of Massachusetts residents approve of gay marriage--a huge turnaround in public opinion from a year ago. So what's changed since then? One thing: people in Massachusetts are now responding to the reality of gay marriage, instead of their preconceptions about it. Apparently, the reality isn't so bad, more Ozzie and Harriet and less Folsom Street than they envisioned.

The same thing has happened in California, to a lesser degree. Mayor Newsom's great experiment in equality may have been legally invalidated, but not before Californians were exposed (ever so briefly) to the reality of the thing. We saw thousands of loving, committed couples pledging to share their lives--including the ultimate couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who had been in a committed relationship for 50 years--and apparently a lot of us didn't find this horrifying: polls in California went from 60% opposed to a roughly even split as of August, 2005.

All of which serves to undermine the position of people who, like Debra Saunders, argue that gay marriage should be established by referendum rather than by the courts or the legislature. Saunders, a libertarian-leaning Republican who is sympathetic on gay rights, misses the point when she argues that

Supporters of same-sex marriage should ask themselves if they want to win their cause without public support or -- even if it takes a little longer -- with public support.

Because the Massachusetts experience, like Executive Order 9981, shows that it doesn't always happen that way. Because prejudice is fear, and people naturally fear the unknown, and so to defeat prejudice sometimes you have to make them know the thing they feared instead of waiting for them to stop fearing it.

I'm still wary of Truman's example, for the reasons I described above; but I am enormously happy to see it apply in this case.