Separate But Equal Is Still Unequal

The dust is settling on the recent ruling in a California court that Proposition 8 was indeed unconstitutional. Clearly, it’s going to be appealed and this argument, whether people of the same gender should be allowed to marry, is not over.

Marriage equality is not a particularly high priority for me. I believe that all people who are interested in marriage should be able to marry if they want to and find a partner or partners they wish to commit to with a marriage. And there are definite social inequalities involved that would be addressed through the legalisation of marriage. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I would prefer that the state stop regulating marriage, leaving that to religious groups, and create legal civil unions across the board for everyone, giving people the option of religious marriage (not recognised by the state) or a civil union (recognised by the state) or both. But I digress.

The marriage debate has much larger implications that we need to talk about. The President of the United States has expressed a preference for a ‘separate but equal’ doctrine when it comes to marriage, and that reminds me that this is about more than marriage. Because if marriage is ‘fair’ when it is ‘separate but equal,’ what about housing? Employment? Access to medical care? Surely, because treating heterosexual people in a hospital environment might upset gay patients, we should set up different hospitals for heterosexual people. They will offer the same level of care, mind you. That’s fair, right?

This is something important about the marriage debate that often gets left out. There’s a reason that people supporting marriage and fighting hardest for it are primarily middle class white gays and lesbians, because, for them, marriage may be the ‘final frontier,’ while other members of the QUILTBAG1 community are fighting with issues like ‘how to stay alive when your parents have kicked you out of the house for being gay’ and ‘how to get hormone treatments when you are an undocumented immigrant making less than minimum wage.’ But this is about more than marriage, and I think that’s being missed by some of the people who are being so derisive about the marriage fight.

I think it’s possible to fight for marriage equality while also fighting for other forms of justice, and that there are some compelling reasons to do so. Not least of which is that we should absolutely refuse to give up on any battle where we are told that ‘separate but equal’ is an acceptable outcome. The Supreme Court already ruled pretty clearly that this was not ok in the case of school segregation, and the same holds true for other oppressions.

I’d prefer to see things like racial and economic justice for my fellow QUILTBAGs before hearing wedding bells, but I also think that shunning the marriage equality movement is not a solution. I want people to know that it’s one of the many things that is important to me, and that I refuse to believe that ‘separate but equal’ is any kind of justice, in any kind of setting.

Marriage equality is not a magic bullet and it won’t solve everything, not even the current inequalities directly linked to marriage. For example, I suspect that people will still be refused access to their partners in hospital settings by interfering administrators, there’s just going to be a new excuse for doing it; having your relationship legally recognised by the state doesn’t force society to recognise it, or to accept it. Just look at the flak interracial couples continue to experience, 43 years after Loving v. Virginia.

It’s also not an active priority for everyone, or something that everyone cares about, and I think that’s ok too. I think that everyone needs to decide where they want to invest their energies and for some people, marriage equality isn’t on the list, or, as in my case, it’s low. Likewise, I am going to view people who focus on marriage equality as the only issue ever with considerable suspicion, because it’s clearly and demonstrably not the only issue, never was, and never will be.

But the precedents set here are important. Talking about relationships in his decision, Judge Walker said things that will matter when it comes to everything from adoption rights to determining if people ‘deserve’ to be beaten and abused for loving someone of the same gender, for being in a relationship with more than one person, for being transgender. Walker said things that matter, set precedents for evaluating future situations, and reminded people clearly and categorically that we are human beings. We are people. We matter and our lives have value.

This is important. Because these words may someday be used to back up legal decisions about very important issues for QUILTBAG folks. Issues that may matter to you a whole lot, like ‘should employers be allowed to discriminate against lesbians’ and ‘should transgender teens have access to clinics where they can receive confidential care’ and ‘should a landlord be allowed to refuse to rent to someone because he is gay’ and ‘should health plans be allowed to exclude all health care costs related to transition/should insurance plans be allowed to refuse to cover medical treatments like ovarian cancer for men and prostate cancer for women.’

Making changes in the law makes changes in social attitudes, and a lot of issues that seem like they should be, as the founders say, self evident, often make their way into the court system. Any case that ends up in backing equality for QUILTBAG people is a good case, in my opinion, because it’s another brick torn out of the wall. And that’s why I care about the Prop 8 decision, and why you should care too.

  1. Queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, asexual, gay