How Long the Arc

This past Tuesday, marriage equality suffered another setback at the hands of bigotry in the state of Maine. This defeat is especially disappointing because, from all accounts, the No on 1 campaign did everything right: running a well-organized, well-financed campaign with powerful advertising and a dedicated get-out-the-vote effort. But even the smartest and most well-crafted effort of persuasion can’t succeed if people aren’t willing to be persuaded, and this was evidently one of those times. The defeat was a narrow one, but I know that’s small consolation for the citizens of Maine who’ve had their civil rights stripped from them by another prejudiced, religious majority.

This result is a demonstration, if another was needed, of the folly of making human rights just another question at the ballot box. This is why we have a constitutional republic in the first place – to protect the rights of minorities by putting them beyond a majority vote. I have no doubt that there are still plenty of places in the U.S. where interracial or interreligious marriage would fail if it were put to a referendum.

Remarkably, even though they’ve won this round, the enemies of equality are still trying to portray themselves as the victims. Take this column by Rod Dreher, which expresses a self-pitying lament that someone might call people like him nasty names because of how they voted:

…unless you’re prepared to call more than half the country bigots — and I have no doubt that many, perhaps most, gay marriage supporters are, and let that self-serving explanation suffice — maybe, just maybe, you ought to ask yourself if there’s something else going on here.

What that “something else” might be, he doesn’t say, but to answer his implicit question: Do I think that people who vote against same-sex marriage are bigoted? Yes! People who would deny equal rights to their fellow human beings, even if they cast their ballot with the most sincere intentions in the world, are still bigots. Why on earth does he imagine that the number of people who vote one way or the other would change our answer to this question? Is he saying that the majority can’t be prejudiced?

Even a cursory look back at history ought to disabuse him of this notion. Every prejudice that we’ve fought and overcome was popular and accepted in its day – from the belief that Africans’ natural role was as slaves, to the belief that women lacked the judgment and discernment needed to vote, to the belief that atheists are unqualified to hold elective office, to the belief that the races should not mix. Every civil rights movement began as a small minority of dedicated activists who battled to win people’s hearts and minds, who struggled, faced setbacks, met with widespread scorn and demonization, and were ultimately victorious. There is no reason to believe that this movement will be different – and very good reason to believe that those who stood on the wrong side of this fight will, one day, be regarded much the same way as we now regard people who defended those past prejudices.

Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But for those of us who are still on the wrong side of that bend, it can be agonizingly slow. To my GLBT friends and allies, who’ve already waited so long and suffered through so much, I can’t in good conscience ask you to wait any longer. But nevertheless, I say: have patience. I ask this of you not for political or tactical reasons, but out of the simple recognition that time is on our side. Just a few years ago, the idea that same-sex marriage would lose at the polls by only a few points would have been astounding; and more change is already visible on the horizon.

As with many social and scientific revolutions, the biggest obstacle to change comes from those in the older generations who have grown up with their prejudices and are too entrenched in them now to ever give them up. And, to be blunt, they will not be around forever. They will be replaced by younger generations, people who’ve grown up knowing gays and lesbians not as despised and stigmatized outcasts, but as their relatives, their neighbors, their friends – human beings just like everyone else, who want for themselves the same things that straight people want. If you want to see the future, we got a glimpse of it on Tuesday (see also):

At University of Maine’s Orono campus, 81 percent of students voted against taking away equal marriage rights, also showing the generation gap that persists on this question.

That is the generation that will be voting the next time this question comes up on the ballot. The bigots can fight as hard as they want, but their era is ending. They have only a short time left.

And this week’s news wasn’t all negative. In Washington state, the “everything but marriage” initiative Referendum 71 – which grants same-sex couples all the rights of marriage without using that term – won a slim, but nevertheless historic, victory. Although separate-but-equal isn’t the best outcome possible, it’s far better than nothing, and a clear sign of the progress that the gay-rights movement continues to achieve. (And for Rod Dreher’s sake, note that this initiative, despite not using the emotionally charged word “marriage”, was still fought tooth and nail by Christianist bigots. What better evidence could you ask for that the true goal of the religious right is to persecute gay people and deny them their rights?)

As long as that arc is, it’s still bending. The question isn’t whether we will eventually win – it’s only a question of when. The progress of equality can be slowed, but it can’t be denied. I know many of you are saddened and angry and frustrated, and I am as well. But if it means anything, remember: We know who we are, and we know what we stand for. No vote can take that away from us.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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