It’s been a week since the Obergefell v. Hodges (pdf) decision came down from the Supreme Court. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to quit sporting the rainbow-hued lenses of the past week. On this 4th of July eve, as I made out with my wife on our back porch in full view of the neighborhood I thought to myself that today I agree with President Obama that “our union is a little more perfect.”
Still, a lot of excellent commentary has come out in the last seven days — not all of it joyous. And I thought I would take a moment to share some of my favorites. Every major legal and social change has its complications and landmines — and no, I’m not talking about the feelings of anti-gay Christians forced to reckon with the fact they share this country with people whose values differ from their own. Below are the perspectives I found eloquent, entertaining, or otherwise useful in placing Obergefell in perspective.
I hope you all remember the glorious YouTube debrief with Nina Totenberg and Tom Goldstein after the oral arguments. On Friday, Nina did a much shorter summary of the decision (with no “broadcast buddy,” sadly!). Both are utterly adorable.
You could also just read the Obergefell haiku.
Having read the Obergefell opinion and dissents, I actually recommend the oral argument transcripts above the decisions for rhetorical-emotional value. As I wrote in April, and have said to a number of friends, there is something uniquely moving about a lesbian making the case for marriage equality before three female Supreme Court justices. Feminism, and its challenge to patriarchal marriage norms, is as much a part of this story as gay liberation.
Both On Point and the Diane Rhem Show offered hour-long programs dedicated to the decision which solid immediate post-decision analysis (in the case of “On Point” an hour after the decision came down!) — though the anti-gay voices are frustratingly fear-mongering. As I observed on Twitter, those who’ve lost the civil marriage equality battle have largely resorted to one third apocalyptic hyperbole, one third petty harassment, and one third hilarious flailing. To make this decision all about their own lost cultural hegemony is hardly new but felt particularly self-centered on the day of the opinion.
Speaking of anti-gay reactions, Reva Stegel and Douglas Nejaime have a excellent contextualizing piece about “conscience” exemptions at The American Prospect. Also at the Prospect was Harold Meyerson’s Unhappy Justices, exploring the distinct flavors of discontent evidenced in each of the individual Obergefell dissents. Jamil Smith at The New Republic reminds us, via Clarence Thomas’ dissent, that racial injustice is just as inextricably bound up in our legacy of LGBT marginalization as gender injustice.
Many eloquent people have pointed out how Justice Kennedy’s dignity argument rhetorically elevates the status of coupledom above other forms of relationship — and why throwing non-marital relationship forms under the bus for the sake of marriage equality hurts us all. “The problem with dignity-based arguments is that they don’t come free—someone else pays the price,” observes Katherine Franke. The Nation‘s Nan Hunter agrees. Over at the blog for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History, Andy Seal suggests how the decision could have been less reactionary to egalitarian change. Rebecca Traister suggests that we might see marriage equality as a stepping stone toward a much more expansive view of relationship and care generally. And thanks to Rachel Hills for pointing me in the direction of Michael Cobb’s passionate NYT op-ed The Supreme Court’s Lonely Hearts Club.
Of course, marriage equality has only recently become a cornerstone of mainstream queer rights political activism — though of course it has been one part of a polyphonic agenda since at least 1972 when the first right to marry lawsuit was dismissed out of hand by the Supreme Court. As Yasmin Nair reminded us the night before the decision came down, “gay marriage … was never a topic of huge concern in the LGBTQ community until the rise of the mainstream gay organisations in the mid-1990s,” when it became an issue ripe for political leveraging. And of course, even then it took two decades for marriage equality to be something that most national politicians openly supported (remember, President Obama — of the rainbow White House — only publicly articulated his support for marriage equality in 2012).
As Arthur Chu reminds us today — one week into the post-facto liberal rush to support our queer relationships — our civil marriage rights were won not through respectability politics alone, but also through the rough-and-tumble politics of civil disobedience, political theater, and not-always-pretty (and rarely polite) public pressure.
Such times we live in pic.twitter.com/Ar4PlkTYN3
— Eric Rauchway (@rauchway) June 27, 2015
As a historian I’m somewhat jaded about narratives of social progress. Time moves forward and change occurs, but rarely in a linear fashion. The victories of one day may become occluded or contravened in the days that follow. As a married, queer woman I hardly feel our marginalization as a socially-defined group of Others has been swept away overnight. Nor do I feel that my marriage required equal recognition under the law to be a meaningful commitment.
Still, I’ve been reading a lot on 20th century LGBT agitation for change recently and the knowledge of how far we have yet to go — and how unassured our past and present gains may be — didn’t stop the tears springing to my eyes at the sights and sounds of people celebrating last weekend. Collective memory may gloss this moment as one of inevitable triumph. But there are queer folk alive who remember when being in an open sexual and/or romantic relationship with someone of the same sex could render you imprisonable, unemployable by the federal government, disqualify you from military service, institutionalized and treated for mental illness, could cause you to lose custody of your children, or even visitation rights, meant mainstream society didn’t care when you and your people were dying … I could go on.
The point is, however imperfect this victory is, it is a victory. We’ve come an incredibly long way thanks to the tireless, raucous, internally contentious efforts of the queer folks and allies who’ve made this story what it is. And I am grateful to live in such interesting and changeable times.