My old teacher Sidney Morgenbesser once said to Avishai Margalit that the urgent task before us is the development of a decent society. Margalit later went on to flesh out what a “decent society” means: simply, a decent society is one that does not humiliate those who live in it. This conception resurfaced recently in Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s speech on the occasion of Spain’s passage deep fundamental civil rights legislation for gays, queers, and lesbians. He said:
We are not legislating, honorable members, for people far away and not known by us. We are enlarging the opportunity for happiness to our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and our families: at the same time we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members.
What has happened in California is this in rewind. The very public and directly democratic roll-back of these rights has made California’s a more indecent society, one in which citizens of the state have gone out of their way to humiliate fellow neighbors, co-workers, friends and family. Sullivan on this affront and disappointment:
Heart-breaking news this morning: a terribly close vote has stripped gay couples in California of their right to marry. The geographic balance shows that the inland parts of California voted for the Proposition and the coast and urban areas voted against it.
Yes, it is heart-breaking: it is always hard to be in a tiny minority whose rights and dignity are removed by a majority. It’s a brutal rebuke to the state supreme court, and enshrinement in California’s constitution that gay couples are now second-class citizens and second class human beings. Massively funded by the Mormon church, a religious majority finally managed to put gay people in the back of the bus in the biggest state of the union. The refusal of Schwarzenegger to really oppose the measure and Obama’s luke-warm opposition didn’t help. And cruelly, a very hefty black turnout, as feared, was one of the factors that defeated us, according to the exit poll. Today this is one of the solaces to a hard right and a Republican party that sees gay people as the least real of Americans.
But I realize I am not shattered. My own marriage exists and is real without the approval of others. One day soon, it will be accepted by a majority. And this initiative in California can and will be reversed, as California’s initiatives are much more fluid than those in other states; and the younger generation is overwhelmingly – 2 to 1 – in our favor. The tide of history is behind us; but we will have to work harder to educate people about our lives and loves and humanity.
It cannot be denied that this feels like a punch in the gut. It is. I’m not going to pretend that the wound isn’t deep and personal, like an attack on my own family. It was meant to be.