Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The American Agenda

Driving home last night I heard a piece on NPR about how President Lyndon Johnson worked behind the scenes with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to bring about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On March 15, 1965, President Johnson went before a joint session of Congress to tell the assembled members and the nation “there is no ‘Negro problem.’ There is no ‘white problem.’ There is an ‘American problem,'” and that the denial of civil rights to any part of the population is a denial of the American dream.

That got me thinking about the ruling in California about same-gender marriage. The ruling by Judge Richard A. Kramer is magnificent in its simplicity: the concept of equal protection under the law does not allow for exceptions simply because tradition or commonly-accepted mores has dictated them. Byran at Why Now has written a concise and logical piece on how exceptions have insidiously tampered with the progress of justice and freedom in this American experiment. Those exceptions have always been accompanied by dire predictions of death, doom, and destruction by those who are unable or unwilling to accept the fact that progress is not a freebie; it has to be paid for by giving up cherished but antiquated modes in favor of the scary and new — like black people or women voting. The American Agenda has always been about the scary and new. That’s why this country was founded in the first place.

The Religious Reich has raised millions of dollars by scaring their followers with dire predictions of what will happen if the “Homosexual Agenda” is allowed to infilrate our nation — “traditional marriage” will be destroyed if gays and lesbians are allowed to marry people of their own gender, and there will be sodomy and acts of pornography in the high schools if gay teens are allowed to acknowledge their presence through the simple act of being themselves. Both of those points are laughable; traditional marriage is doing a fine job of destroying itself without any help from the gay community. Ironically, gays and lesbians want the traditional marriage — a home, a family, and all the rights and responsibilites that come with it. How that can possibly impact straight people is beyond me, unless the gay couples are harvesting their spouses from mixed-gender couples. (It’s been known to happen, but that’s another story.) Teenagers struggle with their new-found sexuality regardless of whether they’re straight or gay, and anything that can be done in the schools or family to help them deal with it, whether its a gay-straight alliance or just a sympathetic teacher, is lightyears beyond the shame and hazing that is rampant today thanks to the cultural and social stigma of being perceived as “different.”

To paraphrase President Johnson, there is no “homosexual agenda;” there is just the American agenda. Gay and Lesbian Americans simply want the same things straight people do. We want the same rights and responsibilities as anybody else, and we want the full protection of the laws. Halfway measures like civil unions are a nice gesture, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, that’s like calling an ox a bull: he’s grateful for the compliment but he’d really like to have restored that which is rightfully his.

The fight for civil rights for African-Americans did not end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Indeed the struggle went on and it wasn’t pretty. The Watts riots, the summers of turmoil in 1967 and 1968 in Detroit, Newark, and other cities and the battle over school desegregation and bussing went on long after and some remanants still linger today. It goes without saying that the present occupant of the Oval Office will never stand in front of a joint session of Congress and advocate equal rights for gays and lesbians; indeed, he has done the opposite. The Vermont laws and the Masschusetts and California rulings are small steps that will be challenged just as the marchers from Selma were challenged on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, hopefully without the bloodshed. But to pick up their mantra, we shall overcome someday.