Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Friday, February 13, 2009

No "separate but equal" for marriage equality

It has been over 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racist laws that consigned African American children to attending separate, but supposedly equal, schools.

The court's ruling held, essentially, that the underlying notion of "separate but equal" school facilities was itself unconstitutional.

Today no one questions that decision, and no one would (at least not publically) suggest that we ought to go back to the segregated world of the 1940s and before.

Yet, many of the same people who understand that it is wrong to give children different educational experiences because of the color of their skin, still hold that it is acceptable to give couples in committed, loving relationships different legal rights on the basis of the shape of their genitalia.

Civil Rights is a long, and ongoing battle. This is its latest front.

The latest salvo in that battle, fired by State Representative Jamie Pedersen, is to submit a bill to the legislature that would expressly give people in domestic partnerships the full range of legal rights as people in state-recognized marriages.

The bill's sponsor, himself one of five openly gay members of the state legislature, refers to the bill as "everything but marriage." It is an apt description. The bill extends literally hundreds of legal benefits that accrue to married couples, from obvious stuff like the right to have custody disputes resolved by a judge, all the way to really narrow items like the right to bequeath a sea urchin fishing license to your survivors. Everything except the word "marriage" itself.

And therein is the problem.

It is right and proper for the legislature to give all these rights to same-sex couples. They deserve them. But "equal in the eyes of the law" is not at all the same thing as "equal in the eyes of society."

No amount of domestic partnership legislation can give members of same-sex couples the same social status as a married couple.

When a person with a new job goes to lunch with his or her new co-workers, and they ask "so, are you married," a heterosexual person can say "yes." A gay or lesbian person cannot. No amount of legislation can, when that person says "no, but I'm in a domestic partnership," cause those co-workers to have the same reaction as a straightforward "yes."

And the same applies in an infinite variety of other social settings.

The right to be treated with dignity and respect may not be legally enforceable--or even legally defined--rights. But they are human rights just the same. And for same-sex couples, the key to getting their full measure of human dignity and respect is access to that one simple word:


The reason "marriage equality" is the right name for this issue is because only true marriage is, in fact, equal.

Domestic partnerships are a step in the direction. Representative Pedersen's bill will help Washington's same-sex couples. But make no mistake. Believing that domestic partnership rights are enough is no different than accepting the racist "separate but equal" legislation of our shameful and intolerant past.

Interestingly, prior to Brown v. Board of Education, Washington was one of a comparatively few states in the union that expressely forbade segregation in public education.

I don't blame Representative Pedersen from pursuing the rights he is due. But given our leading stance on education 50 years ago, how ironic that we are now about to repeat the same mistake here in the 21st century as was done in the Jim Crow south back in the first half of the 20th.


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