Civil disobedience

With so many mayors in so many cities around the country starting to perform gay marriages, legally sanctioned or not, the debate on gay marriage has finally actually started. Granted, it has been a hot topic for a while now, but because it is a political nightmare no matter where you stand on the issue, there has been no real discussion or movement. Those on the right push that the sanctitiy of marriage, defined as between a man and a woman, should be protected, including through a constitutional amendment. Those on the left usually push the idea of civil unions instead of marriage, giving gay couples many, but not all, the rights and privileges afforded to straight married couples. But when the Massachussetts court ruled that civil unions were unconstitutional and that the only real answer was gay marriage, suddenly everybody stopped just talking about it and started actually doing something, whether it was performing thousands of gay marriages or making a real effort to get the proposal to ban gay marriage out of committee.

Before, civil unions seemed like the answer– it was this kinder, gentler thing that wouldn’t challenge the religious institution of marriage while still trying to find a solution. However, the MA court ruling flipped that switch in all of our heads and we realized, hey, they’re right– civil unions aren’t enough! Separate, but equal is rarely ever equal and civil unions are a watered-down, cop out answer to this issue. If we, as a society, are going to say that sexual orientation is not a valid basis for discrimination, then we cannot bar homosexuals from the right to join together in a legally recognized union and we cannot place special conditions or limits on that institution simply because the two parties are of the same sex. Either we discriminate or we do not.

Many have been criticizing those city officials who have been performing these marriage ceremonies, saying that no one is above the law. True, (theoretically) no one is above the law– our judicial system depends on that– but it is our responsibility as citizens to challenge the laws we believe to be wrong. Unfortunately, because they are breaking the law as city officials, they can be removed from office, but at the end of the day, they are courageous and selfless in their endeavors. They truly live up to their duties and responsibilities as both civil leaders and as citizens, using their political power to give voice to those who were not being heard, even if it is at the cost of the office itself. Mayors like Gavin Newsome and Jason West are heroes in this day and age where politicians are afraid to stray from the middle and afraid to fight the fights that need fighting. West’s case is particularly compelling– technically, he was breaking the law, but haven’t all great civil rights battles been fought through civil disobedience? I find it surprising that people are so quick to say that West and his compatriots are doing wrong simply because they are breaking the law. Well duh– although marriage has not been officially defined as a union between a man and a woman, the prevailing legal practice bars gay marriage and “solemnizing” a marriage between two people of the same sex is illegal. We get that. But that’s the whole point. The fight for civil rights starts with the small things– everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks. All she did was refuse to sit at the back of the bus, but it was a beginning. West follows in the footsteps of Parks and Dr. King and Gandhi– he knew he would have to pay a price and he complied peacefully when the day came, but not without challenging the law itself and inspiring so many more through his example.