When one group is oppressed, we are all oppressed. That was the lesson I learned from the Holocaust. Germans turned their eyes when Jews were stripped of their rights. They spat at the Gypsies who were rounded up. They laughed when the faigelah son of their next door neighbor was taken away. They started to worry when their “correct” neighbors disappeared, and they started to lose their own freedoms of movement and association. Then they couldn’t move at all, and they wondered how they got there.
Barak Obama is going to be president of the United States. When California closed its polls and Obama was announced the winner, tears sprang spontaneously to my eyes. Then I saw that Jessie Jackson, and Oprah, had them, too. When Obama spoke of the 106-year-old woman, Ann Nixon Cooper, and all that she has lived through, the floodgates in my eyes could not hold back. This election is truly an historic moment, not just for brown skinned people or for liberals, but for the world. Oppression has been overcome, and our kids are going to grow up not knowing what it was all about.
Well…not all kids.
At the same time that California voters were putting Obama over the top, they were also decisively adding an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. According to the tracking polls, Proposition 8 was opposed overwhelmingly by white people, independents and liberals. It was supported overwhelmingly by Christian conservatives…and African-Americans.
This is the first time in American history that people have voted to change a state constitution to strip people of rights they already have. It took a long time to get the vote for women, but once we got it, we never looked back. As late as the 1970s, many states still barred black people and white people from getting married. But once those miscegenation laws were struck down, there was no support for constitutional amendments to pull back progress and codify prejudice.
But now, the son of a black man and a white woman is going to be president of the United States. And while I was awed by the progress that this group, and we as a nation, and we as human beings, have achieved, I am struck by the fact that with all the oppression African-Americans have had to overcome, there are still many who don’t understand that by stripping another group of their rights, they are still oppressing themselves.
This campaign for gay marriage has put me in an odd position. I’m not for marriage. At all. I see it as a social construct borne in misreadings of the bible and designed to reinforce the view that men must rule over women. Its history in the last 1000 years is one of contract law and ownership. “Husband,” in its Old English origin, means to rule over a household. The word “obey,” was a regular part of the marriage ceremony as late as 20 years ago.
Even in these modern times, when women and men write their own vows and enter marriage with the best intentions for creating a co-equal partnership, the collective weight of history and subconscious societal expectations often buffets their resolve. We don’t know how to be married and be ourselves, so we tend to fall into pre-conceived roles.
The thing about being gay—about being an outsider in any way—is that you get to live apart from society’s expectations. You get to figure out who you are. You have to. There’s no pressure to follow the pattern that moves us from, say, college to living together to marriage to kids to the house in the ‘burbs to… Once you’ve decided that you can find more connection with someone of the same sex than the opposite sex, that pattern is broken. In a big way.
And that can be scary to non-gay people. When you’re are caught up in trying to navigate—mostly subconsciously—the demands of societal expectations, it’s unsettling to see people who aren’t even trying.
As ambivalent as I am about gay marriage, it has occurred to me that gay people, perhaps, can redefine marriage, can strip the sexism from it and help pave the way for more co-equal partnerships.
Of course, that is ultimately what terrifies anti-gay marriage people. If gay people get married, who mows the lawn? Who cooks? Who has the kids, if any? Most importantly, who’s in charge?
As I watched Jesse Jackson cry on election night, I was reminded of the incrementality of progress. When I was a baby, Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And now, my generation and the ones that have come after have elected a brown skinned man as president. As Obama said, Mrs. Nixon, that 106-year-old woman who feared lynchings and had to sit on the back of the bus and go to separate schools and separate restaurants and separate parks, who was 61-years-old when King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, who had just watched as Medgar Evers was gunned down, and was to see the same of Dr. King a few years later…would never have believed that this day would come. But the men and women who stood up for civil rights throughout the 20th century threw the first gravel on the road that would lead to this historic presidency.
This gives me hope. My children already think gay people can marry. My children are growing up with a different understanding of what marriage is about. Many, many other children are, too. As the generation born during the struggle for gay marriage gets to middle age, the generations behind them will wonder even more why gay people getting married was such a big deal.
I saw a quote the day after the election from a woman who voted for Proposition 8. She said the country was getting too socially liberal, that it was different from the America she grew up in, and that it scared the hell out of her.
The America of the 20th century was one of prejudice and exclusion. The America in the first part of the 21th century has been worse. I have feared in the last eight years that German-style fascism could too easily gain strength in the U.S., as “divisiveness” has been the byword of American politics. No, I’m not saying that people who are uncomfortable with same-sex marriage are fascists. And I’m not even really lamenting the passing of Proposition 8. It will go down. Eventually.
But as I celebrate the victory of Barak Obama, it is imperative that I—that we all—keep remembering that real progress is incremental, and that we need to keep telling ourselves and each other that as long as we stop one group from living in freedom, we are stifling freedom for ourselves.