Civil Rights, 21st Century Style

When JFK described the battle for civil rights for African Americans  as a moral issue back in the 1960s, he set in motion a movement that proved irreversible. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation may have ended slavery, but it did not grant equality between the races. Over the next century, judicial decisions, executive orders and, finally, legislative initiatives gradually provided the framework for true equality. Kennedy’s statement did much to push reform forward. More importantly, it made it the right thing to do.

With the debate over same sex marriage entering a new phase in light of  the Iowa State Supreme Court’s ruling favouring gay civil marriage and the Vermont legislature’s move to make same sex marriage legal, we would do well to remember JFK ‘s call for moral leadership. Promoting gay rights, marriage-related or otherwise, is as essential to civil rights in the 21st century as ending segregation was to the epic struggle of the previous two centuries—not so much in its ramifications, but in its inherent appeal to justice and equality.

We in Canada have in large part settled this debate. We must be careful, however, to avoid adopting a condescending and patronizing attitude with respect to our neighbours to the south. In an earlier post, I argued that same sex marriage would eventually be a legal reality, but I should have added that it would not come without a fight. There are still some powerful lobbies in America arguing for a constitutional amendment. George W. Bush attempted to do this, but he failed. But to many social conservatives, it remains the best course of action.

Last week saw the release of a new assault on same-sex marriage via a commercial by the National Organization for Marriage. It argues that in legalizing same sex civil marriage, we are endangering the marriages of heterosexual couples. The ad got much coverage but the reaction might not have been what NOM had hoped for: it was encouraging to those who favour reform as many commentators felt the ad’s message was over the top.

Now, the argument is over whether the issue should be decided by the courts (as it was in Iowa), by politicians (as it was in Vermont’s legislature), or by referendum (as was the case in California). It seems that American federalism may slowly be coming to the rescue. Vermont and Iowa represent a better course than a constitutional amendment or referenda because it provides cover for federal politicians like the current president to let the American system of government works its way through the issue.

In the latest issue of Newsweek, columnist Anna Quindlen argues President Obama should rescind Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. In her article, Quindlen quotes former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili saying the evidence shows the policy does not work. Original supporters have come to a similar conclusion.

Gay marriage and gays in the military are often treated as separate issues. Just like integrated armed forces (Truman’s executive order), ending school segregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), and abolishing the ban on interracial marriage (Loving v.Virginia, 1967) were handled in the past, no one can deny these issues are in fact related. Gay rights are no different. Whether it is in civil society or in the military, it is a 21st century civil rights issue. And it can no longer be denied.

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