15 December 2009

We who laugh last...

Case 1: During the Dreyfus Affair, which ripped France apart in late 1800's, the institutional Catholic Church was at its odious worst, using its mouthpieces in the press to slander, calumnify and lie against Col. Dreyfus, his supporters, and "the Jews." At the time, the church's position in Republican France was near-unassailable - the institution had recovered from the secularism of the Revolution era and through the Bourbon restoration had regained much of its wealth, authority, and centrality in public life and civil society. By lying - and let's be clear, some members of the Church hierarchy lied and lied and lied through the Dreyfus Affair, accusing defenders of the wrongfully accused Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew, of being members of a Jewish conspiracy with the Freemasons (oh, yeah, cuz the Freemasons were so down with the Jews?) - and leading hysterical denunciations of Dreyfus in the press, the Catholic right helped to preserve the French Republic. The Dreyfus case roused the French left, invigorated those who believed in the rule of law, including Emile Zola, and lead to a broad coalition of Republicans, secularists, intellectuals, and Jewish leaders, to invigorate the French Republic and to once and for all pass a law for the Separation of Church and State that is still on the books and enforced.

Had rightist members of the Catholic Church hierarchy not waded in so deeply to the Dreyfus Affair, might the institution not have been so tainted and been able to preserve its privileged position in French government and society? Who knows? It does seem at least likely, however, that the zealotry and ignorance - in every sense of the word - of the anti-Dreyfusards made making the case against them even easier, made de-establishing the Catholic Church easier, and made the final legal step of the secularization of French society, begun in 1789, finally complete. Last laugh? Not the liars, calumnifiers, bigots and churchmen.

Case 2: In 1992, when I lived in Colorado, the voters there approved a statewide amendment - Amendment 2 - banning any local gay rights laws. At the time, there were a total of two, in Denver and Boulder, and Vail was thinking about one. This wasn't to outlaw gay marriage - that couldn't have even been considered at the time - this was an initiative lead by Christian fundamentalists in Colorado Springs to nullify the efforts of OTHER municipalities to extend the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to all of their citizens, i.e., to make it illegal to fire someone because they were gay, to deny housing to someone because they were gay, etc. (Yes, in Colorado in 1992, outside of Boulder and Denver, I could be fired for being gay. And the good Christians in Colorado Springs wanted to keep it that way. Because you know, if not, I might go recruiting. Who knows what they are thinking? They think that dinosaurs and humans are co-contemporary, so really...)

Amendment 2 passed. For the first time in my life, I woke up with fewer civil liberties than I had when I went to bed. This wasn't theoretical, this was real - I lived in Denver, and a majority of my fellow Coloradans thought that I should be able to have fewer protections under the law than they had.(*1) The Mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb (an African American who had been courageous in opposing Amendment 2) and the Governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, attended an anti-Amendment 2 Rally on the steps of the State Capitol the next weekend, and there was a huge throng of people out to protest its passage.

There were lawsuits brought, and they went to the Supreme Court in a case called Romer v. Evans (they named Romer as defendant since he was Governor, despite his strong opposition). On May 20, 1996, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Colorado's Amendment 2 was unconstitutional (duh) - saying:

Its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects; it lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests.

[Amendment 2] is at once too narrow and too broad. It identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board. The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.

The religious leaders of Colorado Springs, by attempting to deny gay folk in two municipalities in Colorado equal protection under the law, initiated a case that lead to the Supreme Court de facto declaring that equal rights are equal rights, instantly making null the legal basis of Bowers v. Hardwick (1986 - the infamous Supreme Court decision upholding the state's interest to make sodomy illegal) and giving a very strong basis on which to challenge it. Lawrence v. Texas (2003) did just that; all sodomy laws in the country were overturned in a single stroke. Further, there is now an extant Supreme Court decision recognizing that animus toward gay folk isn't enough reason on which to base a law, that gay folk are a protected class due to such animus, and that while not cited as such, created tremendous momentum for the gay marriage movement.

And in May, 2007, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter signed into law a non-discrimination ordinance protecting all Coloradans from discrimination in public accommodation, housing and employment regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. State wide.

Last laugh? Not the liars, calumnifiers, bigots and churchmen or -women.

I thought of all of this with the news out of Houston and New York and Uganda this week. It's heartbreaking, what religious folks do in the name of Christ to deny equal rights to gay folk, through lies and laws, with fear and murder, around the world. But this is what religion does - it otherizes, it twists, it corroborates or instills fear, it placates inquiry, it satiates base tribal needs - as it always has, from Dreyfus, from the Middle Ages and the Jew-baiting for the plague (never mind that Jewish neighbors were dying in the same numbers). But it doesn't win. Clemenceau, a rabid and raging atheist, became French Prime Minister and the Civil Law of 1905 got passed. Coloradans did the right thing and got a state wide non-discrimination law. Houstonians ignored the calumny of religious leaders about a lesbian candidate for mayor and elected her. New Hampshire gets gay marriage - the full thing - on January 1st. New York doesn't, yet, but will - can we really doubt that?

So when we get despondent about all of the news from the struggles on gay marriage in this country, just think - in 1992 in Colorado some bigots thought they'd tell the Cities of Denver and Boulder that they had to discriminate against their gay neighbors, and now there is a state-wide law protecting gay folk; beginning in a few weeks there's one more state, New Hampshire, in which I'll be able to get married.(*2) No gay kid growing up in Houston thinks he or she is the only one in the world, or that his or her life choices need to be circumscribed by who he or she is.

And in Uganda? Well, that road is longer, and darker, no question. But think of Colonel Dreyfus in prison, and think of who might be Emile Zola or Wellington Webb or Annise Parker.

And maybe some gay kid in Uganda will, like many before her or him, have the last laugh.

(*1) And this is not theoretical. While living in Long Beach in 1999, Arnold and I decided to move in together. When I told my landlord that my boyfriend was moving in with me, he told me that I'd have to move. Nevermind that my neighbors were an unmarried (straight) couple; or that every other unit in his 4-unit walk up had two or people living in it, none of whom were married - we couldn't live there. Well, in fact, thanks to California law (and the fact that Arnold used to work for fair housing Long Beach), we could. These things happen, all the time, everywhere - it's not theoretical. In which one of the Beatitudes does Christ say to disposses the housed, again?

(*2) No, not that anyone at Bren's Left Coast is asking or being asked - just sayin'

No comments: