By Stephanie Zúñiga
For members of the gay community as well as supporters of civil rights, a huge step forward was taken when on February 12, 2004 the city of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- that's right, marriage licenses, not civil unions (marriages grant couples over 1,000 benefits that civil unions do not). This didn't last long, however, as it was struck down months later by the state's supreme court which held that the city lacked authority to issue such marriage licenses, thus invalidating the marriages of more than 4,000 couples. At the time, the court conveniently declined to rule on whether the statutory exclusion of these couples from marriage violates the state's constitution.
Later, however, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard A. Kramer ruled that denying marriage equality to couples of the same-sex is in fact a violation of California’s Constitution. This was a shortly- lived victory, however. In a controversial 2-1 vote, the Court of Appeal reversed Judge Kramer’s decision. After the appeal the California Supreme Court will soon decide whether it does in fact violate California’s Constitution.
As an anxious LGBT community awaits the court’s decision, there is a lesson to be learned. As a public we have become complacent, docile, and ignorant. We have been comforted by a brief victory and left the notion of ‘rights’ to escape our active awareness. We consider the struggle for our rights a battle that was already won and left it dormant, existing only in history books and coming to life when younger generations learn of Dr. King, the Civil Rights Act and Freedom Summer. This has become our greatest mistake, as well their greatest weapon.
Who is "they," you ask? ‘They’ are activist judges who use the law – created to serve and protect all people – as a means of ‘legal’ oppression. ‘They’ are, to make it a bit more tangible, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who single-handedly shot down legislation passed by the California Legislature in both 2005 and 2007 that would have given couples of the same-sex the right to marry, along with the over 1,000 benefits of marriage enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Recently, however, the governor’s representatives stated that he would uphold the decision of the Supreme Court, regardless whether the court rules for or against marriage equality. Let’s see if he stays true to his word.
And yet as this is taking place we sit by idly, failing to realize that as long as rights are not universal, as long as one person cannot share in the rights that others enjoy, the battle for our rights is not over. It is true that we are not in Montgomery, Alabama, we are not in the 1960s, and we are not divided by color in the same way we once were. But today in 2008, we are divided by hate – a hate that is causing the oppression of not just the LGBTQ community, but of all of us. If we fail to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community, we fail to fight for all rights.
The freedom to choose who we spend our life with is as fundamental to us as any other human right, which comes from a source far superior to California’s Constitution. Allowing California to strip us of our right to choose if and who we marry would not only mean the denial of legal protections given to those in heterosexual relationships such as tax benefits, parenting rights, and rights in times of emergency, but would deprive us of our rights as human beings. Aside from such major issues of legality, such a ruling would have severe effects in the daily lives of members of the community by encouraging stigmatization of LGBTQ couples and individuals, dehumanizing them and creating an atmosphere of exclusion and contempt. Does this sound like equal protection under the law?
Regardless whether the judges of the California Court find some technicality on which to base their ban on marriage equality, the ultimate decision rests in the hands of the people. If we continue to think that the battle for rights was won and is simply a thing of the past, others will continue to trample over us and our rights. When slavery ended, when our communities ceased to be separated by color, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, we won the battle, not the war. Today we have the chance to move forward, affirming the rights of all. Just as Mildred Loving and her husband did in 1967.