Today hundreds of same-sex couples in Pennsylvania are applying for marriage licenses, following Tuesday’s court decision declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Somewhat surprisingly, the conservative governor, Tom Corbett, has announced that he is not intending to challenge the decision. When I moved to Pennsylvania five years ago, marriage equality in the state seemed to be a pipe dream—it now appears to be inevitable. The announcement was accompanied by much excitement and celebration, and shock for some who thought they would not see this day arrive. While I certainly felt the joy that others experienced, I think I used up much of my shock in December when a similar event happened in my birth state—the ultra conservative Utah.
In addition to celebrating and supporting couples who are now getting married, this is a great time to reflect on the ways in which social change happens. PA is now the 19th state in which same-sex marriage is legal. Interestingly, in 8 of those states the decision was made by a court ruling, while 8 states legalized same-sex marriage by an act of state legislature and 3 by popular vote. While each of these methods lead to similar results as far as the legal rights of couples are concerned, they are accomplished in different ways and may carry varied implications.
The Pennsylvania decision came at in interesting time, about a week after the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education. This anniversary was an important reminder of the supreme court ruling which declared that the principle of “separate but equal” as it related to education and race was unconstitutional. These two court decisions, occurring over half a century apart, have important similarities and speak to the power that the US court system can have in implementing social change. In many ways the court system is uniquely positioned to push our society toward equality on topics where public opinion is mixed or even leans heavily in the direction of injustice. Courts are called upon to make decisions not based on popularity but based on the constitution, an aspirational document describing the nation’s support of equality for all—a value that is not always accompanied by action. The federal judge who made the ruling in the Pennsylvania decision, Judge John E. Jones III, also noted this similarity. He wrote within his decision, “In the sixty years since Brown was decided, 'separate' has thankfully faded into history, and only 'equal' remains. Similarly, in future generations the label 'same-sex marriage' will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by 'marriage.'”
While I appreciate the judge’s sentiment and celebrate the win of equality on paper I must question whether this statement is held up by the facts. Although school segregation by race is no longer “technically” legal, one need only do a cursory examination of the educational system within the USA to see that it is far from “equal.” There are huge disparities in the quality of public education and access to resources in schools in different neighborhoods, often with the divides occurring on racial and social class lines. I point this out not to in any way diminish the importance of the Brown decision, but as a caution that we not hold up the “mission accomplished” sign prematurely.
Equal treatment under the law is incredibly important and we should continue to celebrate the legal wins toward marriage equality within the USA. We should also continue to check the temperature of the larger cultural climate in which LGBT individuals live. The movement toward legalization of same-sex marriage is likely the product of decreased homophobia. Hopefully, it will also continue this trend by challenging people’s stereotypes (in much the same way that school desegregation changed attitudes by giving people more opportunities for inter-group contact). But marriage equality will not protect children from homophobic bullying in schools or eliminate workplace discrimination. If our goal is to move beyond tolerance to embracing and celebrating the dignity of all people then we must remain diligent.
During Chatham’s commencement speech on Monday Denis Hayes cautioned graduates not to “sacrifice the good in pursuit of the perfect.” I appreciate this sound advice, but also add that we not hide behind the “good enough” at the expense of people’s dignity.
So let’s celebrate! Revel in the accomplishments and continue to live our values. Supporting equality is not rhetoric. It is an ongoing way of life.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.