Opposing Gay Marriage Is a Waste of Your Time

Like those who stood against civil rights for African-Americans, gay-marriage foes are fighting a battle they can’t win.

National Journal
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Ron Fournier
May 14, 2014, 7:57 p.m.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Nine slender statues stand be­neath a win­dow to the Arkan­sas gov­ernor’s of­fice — bronze, life-size im­ages of the black chil­dren who in­teg­rated Little Rock Cent­ral High School on Sept. 25, 1957, and helped ig­nite the civil-rights era. “They de­fied pre­ju­dice,” says Gregory Don­ald­son, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Baptist min­is­ter from St. Louis vis­it­ing the dis­play with his wife Nanette. “They de­fied bigotry.”

A few blocks away, at the very same mo­ment, Sam­antha Head mar­ries her part­ner of sev­en years, Sam­antha Kertz. Their simple ce­re­mony is one of dozens of gay wed­dings con­duc­ted at the Pu­laski County Court­house since Sat­urday, when a county judge ruled the state’s gay-mar­riage ban in vi­ol­a­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. The de­cision thrust Arkan­sas in­to a fa­mil­i­ar spot: squarely in the middle of a civil-rights fight.

In 1957, the battle lines were hardened but the out­come was cer­tain: Even­tu­ally, the na­tion’s schools and oth­er in­sti­tu­tions would de­seg­reg­ate. And so it is now, when a gray, rain-spit­ting work­day in Little Rock il­lus­trates how far the gay-rights move­ment has come — and how far it will go.

As with the Little Rock school-de­seg­reg­a­tion crisis, the chief prot­ag­on­ists in this story rep­res­ent both the past and the fu­ture. Slightly ahead of his time (and his state) is Pu­laski County Cir­cuit Judge Chris Piazza, who ruled that a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment over­whelm­ingly passed by voters in 2004 ban­ning gay mar­riage was “an un­con­sti­tu­tion­al at­tempt to nar­row the defin­i­tion of equal­ity.” Try­ing to turn back time are the likes of Re­pub­lic­an state Sen. Jason Rapert, a fierce op­pon­ent of gay rights who wants Piazza im­peached.

Every­body else seems to fall between Rapert and Piazza — neither her­oes nor vil­lains, all strug­gling at their own pace to ac­cept and ad­just to rap­id so­cial change. They re­flect the evolving Amer­ic­an pub­lic. In just the last week, pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball’s first openly gay play­er was draf­ted by an NFL team and a fed­er­al judge struck down Idaho’s ban on gay mar­riage, say­ing it re­leg­ated same-sex couples to a second-class status.

Don­ald­son, the black Baptist min­is­ter, wrinkles his nose when I tell him about the gay mar­riages un­der­way at the nearby court­house, not to men­tion what’s hap­pen­ing in the NFL and Idaho. “I’m not for gay mar­riage,” he seethes. “I’m against what God’s against.”

But wait. That’s pre­cisely the jus­ti­fic­a­tion giv­en by se­greg­a­tion­ist politi­cians of the civil-rights era. In Geor­gia, Gov. Al­len Cand­ler said, “God made them Negroes and we can­not by edu­ca­tion make them white folks.” Ross Barnett be­came Mis­sis­sippi’s gov­ernor in 1960 after claim­ing that “the good Lord was the ori­gin­al se­greg­a­tion­ist.”

I ask Don­ald­son, How can a black man echo big­ots to stifle gay rights?

“As far as hatred,” he says, “I would nev­er have hatred to­ward any­body.”

But you sound like a se­greg­a­tion­ist, I say po­litely. Don­ald­son and his wife seem like a kind, lov­ing couple, pil­lars of their com­munity. But he did sound like Or­val Faubus, the se­greg­a­tion­ist gov­ernor who de­fied the Su­preme Court in 1957 (and who, years ago, I caught crash­ing a Little Rock Nine trib­ute).

“There’s a dif­fer­ence,” Don­ald­son coos. “The dif­fer­ence is [ra­cists] in­ter­preted the Bible to sup­port their polit­ic­al am­bi­tions. I don’t in­ter­pret the Bible. I do what it says.”

Later, I walk in­to Bill Clin­ton’s old of­fice and shake hands with Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Beebe, a mod­er­ate Demo­crat I’ve known for years. Not sur­pris­ingly, Beebe’s po­s­i­tion on gay rights is close to the state’s main­stream opin­ion. While he op­poses dis­crim­in­a­tion against gays in the work­place, he be­lieves mar­riage is a uni­on between a man and a wo­man.

“It’s an­oth­er step for me to get to gay mar­riage,” he says. Even a stranger to Beebe’s nu­anced polit­ics would re­cog­nize him sig­nal­ing that both he and his state are evolving, al­beit slowly, to­ward that step.

When I com­pare his jus­ti­fic­a­tions for op­pos­ing gay mar­riage to those used by Faubus, Beebe sternly makes two dis­tinc­tions. First, the se­greg­a­tion­ist gov­ernor took ac­tions he knew were wrong to fur­ther his polit­ic­al ca­reer (Beebe plans to re­tire after his term ex­pires next year). Second, Faubus broke the law and “I wouldn’t do that.”

Someday, I say, leg­al bans on gay mar­riage may be ruled un­con­sti­tu­tion­al, and not just at a county level. Beebe smiles.

For lunch, I eat with At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Dustin McDaniel in his of­fice. Two weeks ago, he be­came the first politi­cian elec­ted statewide to en­dorse gay mar­riage. And yet, he plans to ap­peal Piazza’s rul­ing. The state is his cli­ent and he’s ob­lig­ated to ar­gue its case, McDaniel says, just as a de­fense at­tor­ney must rep­res­ent a known crim­in­al. Drag­ging a spoon through his soup, McDaniel out­lines his case against Piazza’s rul­ing, point-by-point in a sing-song voice that be­lies his am­bi­val­ence.

Polit­ic­ally, the am­bi­tious Demo­crat is thread­ing a needle. His para­dox­ic­al po­s­i­tion may al­low him to be a cham­pi­on of gays without an­ger­ing con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents.

I tell McDaniel that he’s fur­ther evolved on the top­ic than Beebe, and that pub­lic opin­ion is mov­ing to­ward ac­cept­ance of gay mar­riage. In par­tic­u­lar, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, which soon in­her­its Amer­ica’s fu­ture, over­whelm­ingly em­braces the most tol­er­ant views to­ward ho­mo­sexu­als.

“I think we are put­ting for­ward le­git­im­ate leg­al ar­gu­ments” against Piazza’s rul­ing, based on the state Con­sti­tu­tion, he says. But, he adds, “I think from a policy per­spect­ive, yes, your the­ory is right. The trend is clear. Young Amer­ic­ans don’t see [gay mar­riage] as an is­sue at all.”

Which brings me to the Pu­laski County Court­house where the two Sam­anthas, both in their mid-20s and from nearby Jack­son­ville, Ark., em­brace and kiss after ex­chan­ging vows. Theirs is one of the last same-sex wed­dings be­fore coun­try clerks stop the prac­tice — after just five days — to await clar­ity on Piazza’s rul­ing from the Su­preme Court.

Hold­ing their mar­riage li­cense, Sam­antha Head says the last per­son she told about her sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion was her grand­moth­er. She was afraid a wo­man in her ninth dec­ade would ob­ject. In­stead, the grand­moth­er told Sam­antha, “Screw the con­ser­vat­ives and screw the die-hard Chris­ti­ans. You love each oth­er. So I love my Sam­mies.”

It’s easy to de­mon­ize con­ser­vat­ives and Chris­ti­ans. It’s harder to re­cog­nize that faith is a stern mas­ter, es­pe­cially among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans whose an­im­us to­ward ho­mo­sexu­al­ity runs deep. We should know by now that so­cial change takes times, but the Amer­ic­an pub­lic tends to even­tu­ally get things right.

“The arc of the mor­al uni­verse is long but it bends to­ward justice,” Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. said of the fight for ra­cial equal­ity. Five dec­ades later, Don­ald­son and his wife posed for pic­tures in front of the Little Rock Nine monu­ment and dis­missed the fight for sexu­al equal­ity. In the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, their views on ho­mo­sexu­al­ity will pass in­to his­tory. Nobody can stop the arc of justice.

Marriage notices in Wednesday's Arkansas Democratic-Gazette include scores of same-sex couples. (Ron Fournier) Ron Fournier

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