If justice is good for one, then shouldn’t it be good for all?
I recently dined with the kids – sans husband who was stuck at work – at a French bistro around the corner from our home. It was a balmy spring night, the dining patio full of patrons enjoying mussels, escargot, and pan-seared steaks. As I settled the kids into their chairs and tore up chunks of bread for them to eat, I heard a man’s voice behind me. “Excuse me,” he said, “I don’t know how you do it with two. We just have the one and it seems impossible at times.” I smiled at him and his eighteen month old son sitting in a high chair, giggling adorably under a floppy green hat. “No different from you,” I said. A few minutes later the man’s partner – another man – returned to the table. The three of us talked about their impending move to Maplewood, a popular Manhattan suburb, about their fear of isolation from the city, about their excitement of having a big backyard. The conversation was utterly mundane, yet enjoyable because we were on the same plane, finding so much in common in the space of a few minutes.
Every child is born into a universe of possibility. He knows only one truth at the outset: the love of his parents. Yet he is also born into an imperfect culture. The worst examples of our own imperfections are stunning upon reflection. Our nation’s forefathers put pen to paper with the three-fifths compromise, which effectively declared a black man equal to three fifths of a white man. Volumes could be written by people more scholarly than I about who was to blame, why the forefathers proceeded with a compromise to allow slavery, and so on; but the simple truth is this: it was evil, and they proactively permitted it in our Constitution. It would require a civil war and the thirteenth amendment to eradicate this evil from our historical record, yet the imperfection would persist. In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man legally married in Washington D.C., but living in Virginia, were banished from Virginia under threat of jail time for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) laws. The Lovings sued Virginia; it would take eight years, but in 1967 the Supreme Court decreed – by unanimous decision – that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Yes, we live in an imperfect culture…but if history teaches us anything, it is this: we do not have to sit quietly about it.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in 1996; it is less than one page long yet its impact is devastatingly widespread; it denies the right to marry – and myriad benefits therein under federal law – to gay couples. Their children suffer as a result. But DOMA is about more than gay families. DOMA degrades us a society. It is written with the same evil intention employed by those who would hold that certain men are only worth three-fifths of other men. It dumps us into the same historical dustpan of those who would hold that a dark-skinned woman married to a white-skinned man is illegal and immoral. DOMA is a stain upon our national character.
Beyond DOMA, as a lifelong New Jerseyan, I think it is shameful that New Jersey does not yet occupy the moral high ground currently owned by Connecticut, New York, Washington, Maine, Vermont, and Iowa, among others, in legalizing gay marriage. And yet we call ourselves a progressive state?
The two men I shared a drink and conversation with last week were good fathers who clearly loved their son. I safely assume they pay federal and state taxes and are law-abiding citizens. They accordingly deserve the benefits and rights that my husband and I enjoy. That they are gay should make no difference. That they are human beings should be all that matters. Dignity is not relative.
Justice…we can embrace it or we can deny it. But the real question is this: do we want our kids looking up at what we had the courage to embrace, or down at the justice that we chose to deny?
To learn more about the efforts to legalize gay marriage in NJ, please visit Garden State Equality, NJ’s largest civil rights organization comprised of 125,000 members, about half of whom are from outside the LGBT community.