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Laws Can Change Opinions

Big changes can happen fast, but the most important ones take a bit of time.  It was just two weeks ago, today, that we saw the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and already the smell of real transformation is in the air.  That domino was just the first to fall though.  Many more are to follow.

Now, just as Godwin’s Law tells us that all online discussions will eventually lead us to Hitler or the Nazis, it’s fair to say that any serious discussion about civil rights in this country is bound to eventually involve segregation or slavery.  So, rather than dance around those topics and try to prevent the inevitable, I think we should just go ahead and dive right in with some comparisons.

Before we start though, I want to make one thing clear.  By making comparisons between gay rights and the history of injustices that African Americans have endured, I’m not trying to say that the two are equal things.  There are definitely many similarities between the two issues, but there are also some key differences as well, and it’s important to keep those in mind.  While it is impossible to deny that homosexuals have been put through a lot of horrible things, it’s also fair to point out that they were never sold as property at auctions.  On the other side of the coin, segregation for blacks was an attack against their skin color, where for gays it’s an attack on who they are inside and at their core, instead of something visible to the eye.  You can argue back and forth over which is worse, but you can’t say that they are completely identical to each other.

All of that being said, I think that because of their similarities, it’s not too far of a stretch to believe that the evolution of gay rights may progress very similarly to the way in which the rights of African Americans did in the ’50s and ’60s.  Just as we had a landmark ruling on June 26th to overturn DOMA, the Supreme Court ruled made their ruling on Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954.  It was a major step forward against segregation, and it was only 10 years later that we saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, putting to rest the last of the Jim Crow laws.  In a similar fashion, I think that it’s well within the realm of possibility that we’ll see gay rights take a similar path in the next decade.  By 2023, I’m hoping to see a country where same sex couples can get married in every one of our 50 states, and where they will have all of the same legally protected rights of straight couples, across the board.  It’s not guaranteed to happen, but history definitely shows that it’s a very real possibility.

Unfortunately, as my co-host and I discussed on a podcast a couple weeks ago, the law isn’t everything.  The end of segregation wasn’t the end of prejudice against black people, and the end of DOMA won’t be the end of discrimination against gays.  It’s a sad truth, but it is the reality we live in.  However, the law does have indirect impacts that *can* actually change minds.  It’s a slower process than a legal ruling, because it’s more subtle, but that process is even more important to recognize for its power.

When the Jim Crow laws were abolished, people who were prejudice before their demise were still prejudice afterward.  At first glance, it looked like the opinions of everyone would remain as they always had been, but that there would be more protections to prevent prejudices from causing certain types of injustice.  Voters couldn’t be turned away so easily for the color of their skin, people could sit where they wanted to on buses, and the school a child went to would depend purely on their age, not their race.  That last one is probably the most important.

Kids don’t start out being prejudice.  It’s a learned behavior, and one that they often times inherit from not just their parents, but from their environment as well.  If you put a child in a school that has some diversity, there’s a much greater likelihood of them making friends with other children that don’t share the same culture or ethnicity, and there’s less likelihood of them making the same judgements their parents might have made against those groups.  Children eventually become adults, and those adults have children of their own.  They’re certain to have picked up a few biases of their own along the way, but with each generation that follows, less and less of those get passed down.  It’s a cycle that takes decades for each revolution, but from the eye of history, it can go a lot faster than you might expect.

The more exposure we have to people who are different from ourselves, the more walls that we can break down between us.  Even in the deep south, where prejudice is still a way of life for many people, time has shown a softening of those views since the laws were changed to create more equality.  We’re bound to see the same thing happen as the rights of homosexual couples are more and more protected.

No, there haven’t been many instances where gay children aren’t allowed to go to straight schools (though I’m sadly certain that it has happened).  And no, there hasn’t been a system of separate seating on buses that’s based on sexual preference, but there are still a lot of ‘separate but equal’ laws on the books that affect non-traditional couples.  Those laws are what make it easier for us to form biases against homosexuality, by separating ‘us’ from ‘them’.  Yet, I see a world where, as they start to get overturned in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, bigotry will get a little bit harder for people, because they’ll start to get more exposure to same sex relationships.

It’s the little things that start to make the biggest impacts.  Your relationship might not change at all, but being able to legally identify your partner as your husband or your wife can lead to so many more situations where others can see the many healthy homosexual couples that exist out there.  When you fill out the paperwork to get insurance benefits covered for your spouse and your employer sees that they happen to have the same gender as you do, when you apply for a marriage license, and when you file your will with the court and know that if you die your spouse won’t have to worry about estate taxes, all of those are situations where others will be exposed to your relationship, and they’re situations where they will have to legally recognize it.  Eventually, as more marriages are recognized along side with the rights that go with them, acceptance will start to follow.

In schools today, we make sure to teach our children about the struggles that African Americans endured to gain their civil rights.  The same type of education about gay rights is one that’s sure to follow in the coming years.  It won’t be long until we look at both of them as a part of our history, and the prejudices that we see today will become a part of our past.

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