Like many other North Carolinians, I was saddened and shocked by the outcome of May’s primary election, in which 61% of voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman and prohibiting all forms of rights, privileges, and benefits for all unmarried couples. Most of us who voted against this amendment lamented the fact that its timing was the ultimate in political chicanery by the conservative leaders of the General Assembly, who well knew that voter turnouts are traditionally low for primaries.
Nevertheless, the voters made their decision. As a historian, it occurs to me that this nation has reached a disturbing and reactionary constitutional watershed as states pass amendments in order to legislate inequality into their constitutions. Even a cursory examination of the thirty such amendments across the nation does not reveal any form of cogent legal justification, and most appeal to some vague concept of a timeless and sacrosanct institution of marriage.
But mostly they testify to widespread misunderstanding of what the institution of marriage actually means.
Marriage, in fact, is not one thing. Instead, the concept of marriage exists on a variety of levels in specific social and legal contexts. For instance, if a man and a woman (or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman) enters a house of worship, and they exchange holy vows in front of a clergyman, who subsequently unites them in a state of matrimony in the eyes of God, then one particular form of marriage has indeed been celebrated.
However, if the very same couple wishes to file a joint tax return, avoid testifying against each other in open court, or leave their property to each other without resort to costly legal safeguards, they need to go down to the courthouse and obtain a marriage license. This, of course, is another kind of marriage altogether, one that is sanctioned by the state, which confers rights and privileges upon those that it recognizes as enjoying the right to enter into this form contractual union.
It is this latter form of marriage, one granted by the states, that most gay people want. I have been with my partner for thirty-two years, through thick and thin, sickness and health, happiness and tragedy, and I cannot escape the conclusion that I am a second class citizen because the state I live in will not grant my partner and myself the rights and privileges enjoyed by all couples, straight or gay, in Iowa, New York, the District of Columbia, and several other states.
Such state sanctioned contractual unions, which enjoy specific rights and privileges under the law, have nothing to do with religion, and it have everything to do with civil rights. A number of modern nations have also come to this conclusion; Great Britain, Canada, even Catholic Spain, as well as a number of American states, which recognize that full marriage equality represents the logical progression of a much larger and venerable civil rights movement in this country, in which African and Native Americans, women of all races, and the citizens of LGBT communities are all granted equal protections under the law, and all the rights and privileges of citizenship, and marriage, that were restricted to white men of property at the beginning of our nation’s history.
In the two hundred-plus years since our nation’s founding, freedoms, protections, and rights and privileges under the law have been expanded exponentially to previously marginalized and victimized communities within of this nation. But the passage of anti-gay marriage amendments has stopped this long, grand tradition in its tracks, and exposes the American dream to the forces of reactionary conservatism, ignorance, bigotry, and hatred. Until Americans all over this country, and particularly in the south, realize that the variety of forms of marriage defined by states, which grants to the married couples it chooses to recognize rights and privileges under the law, is inherently unequal, then the work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished.
The good news: Many great and historic champions of civil rights – including the North Carolina and national branches of the NAACP – as well as President Obama have recently and explicitly recognized marriage as a civil right, one which should extend to all citizens of this country, regardless of their sexual orientation. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning of a new and positive era of growth in the nation’s historic struggle.
Dr. Charles Beem is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.