Monthly Archives: April 2014

Reflections on Discrimination

I was thinking of a statement that I made recently made of gay rights activists such as myself: “In the case of gay marriage, we’re not forcing people to treat someone equally in their personal life. We want the government to stop discriminating.” I believe that a good subject for a blogpost would be defining the term “personal life,” because it relates to the Gay Rights Movement. The issue of gay marriage itself deals only with government discrimination, but there are other gay rights issues that deal with private sector discrimination. After all, I and many other Gay Rights activists do strongly favor anti-discrimination laws that cover the private sector. For instance, nobody should have the right to refuse to rent or sell someone a house or refuse to hire someone because of their sexual orientation. A catering or photography business should not have the right to refuse to provide services for a wedding because both spouses are of the same sex. So does this mean the Gay Rights Movement wants to use government to force Americans to treat other Americans equally in their personal lives? Not really. Businesses, schools, etc. are institutions that proprietors have chosen to be open to the public. It is despicable and bigoted to refuse to be friends with someone because they are gay, but individuals have a right to refuse to be friends with someone else no matter how absurd that’s individual’s reasons are. That is what I mean by “personal life.” What individuals do not have the right to do is to open an institution such as a business to the public and then deny equal access to some members of the public because of immutable traits like sexual orientation. So those Americans who still cling to archaic notions about gays, racial minorities, and other historically oppressed groups should just relax. Nobody will be forced against their will to be best buddies with a gay couple who moves into their neighborhood. It’s your loss if you withhold friendship because of someone’s sexual orientation, but it’s also your decision. But if someone wants to be able to live some place that doesn’t allow gays, they will just have to live inside a Christian Identity church or something.

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Federalism Flip Flops

I noticed something interesting recently about the gay marriage debate. Following the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage in the Bay State in 2003, a multitude of conservatives began calling for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in all fifty states. George W. Bush, who had said during his first presidential campaign that he opposed gay marriage but would favor leaving the issue to the states, changed his position and declared his support for a “Federal Marriage Amendment.” During Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, the GOP platform expressed full support for such an amendment. (How ironic it was that in 1864, the Republican Party platform had called for a constitutional amendment that would give rights to millions of African Americans by abolishing slavery, while in 2004, the Republican Party platform called for a constitutional amendment that would take rights away from millions of gay Americans.) When Wayne Allard (R-CO) sponsored the Federal Marriage Amendment in the Senate, he was joined by 18 Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Deputy Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, previous Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Orrin Hatch, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Thad Cochran, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Richard Shelby, and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works James Inhofe. Governor Mitt Romney testified before the Senate in favor of the amendment. All but five Republican Senators ended up voting to invoke cloture in order to break a Democratic filibuster and bring the amendment up for a vote quickly. Conservative support for a Federal Marriage Amendment remained high after the furor over the Massachusetts decision had abated. In 2008, shortly after a strong performance in the Republican presidential primaries, Mike Huckabee wrote, “I support the Federal Marriage Amendment, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, ending the ambiguity caused by crazy court decisions like those in Massachusetts and California.” Although that year’s presidential nominee John McCain opposed a Federal Marriage Amendment (while appealing to bigots by favoring DOMA and DADT), vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was asked about her views on a constitutional ban of gay marriage and replied, “I wish on a federal level that that’s where we would go because I don’t support gay marriage.” In the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and eventual nominee Mitt Romney all signed a pledge by the National Organization for Marriage stating that, among things, they would support a Federal Marriage Amendment if elected. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan had also gone on record in the past as favoring a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Meanwhile, some pro-gay marriage politicians used the rhetoric of states’ rights. In 2006, Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat who won an election to represent New York’s 20th district in Congress and currently serves as New York’s junior Senator, stated that she would vote for the legalization of gay marriage in her state but believed that, “All things that we give to married couples, committed gay couples should be eligible for. And then the question of whether you call it a marriage or not, what you label it, that can be left to the states to decide.” Sheldon Whitehouse, a successful Democratic Senate candidate from Rhode Island in 2006, said, “I support gay marriage,” and argued that, “It is wrong for the federal government to intervene in what has always been a state issue — the regulation of marriage.” According to ThinkProgress.org, when President Obama declared his support for gay marriage in 2012, “Obama stressed that he personally affirms same-sex marriage, but says the matter should be left to the individual states.”

Now, a shift has occurred. 2012 drew to a close with Barack Obama defeating Mitt Romney by a not-particularly narrow margin, three states legalizing gay marriage via public referendum, and Minnesota voters defeating a proposed anti-gay marriage amendment to their state constitution. Wisconsin voters rejected Paul Ryan and sent a pro-gay marriage, openly lesbian candidate to the Senate. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Prop 8 and section 3 of DOMA, and seven more states chose to legalize gay marriage. Both sides seemed to have largely changed their views on whether the states or the federal government should decide the issue of marriage equality. Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, a conservative Republican, co-sponsored the Federal Marriage Amendment back when he served in Congress. He now avoids directly answering questions about whether he still wants to amend the Constitution and says, “my hope is that the Supreme Court will affirm the fact that this question should be resolved by the people and by the states.” This year, Mike Huckabee was asked at a CPAC press conference whether he now wants gay marriage to be decided at the state or federal level and gave an evasive answer before walking off. Ted Cruz, arguably the current U.S. Senator most closely associated with the Hard Right, strongly opposes gay marriage but says the issue should be decided by the individual states. Even former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed grudgingly admits that a Federal Marriage Amendment would be, “trying to put the genie back in the bottle.” Meanwhile, President Obama has begun to tacitly signal support for federal intervention to overturn state laws against gay marriage. He favored the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Proposition 8, and his administration has chosen to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah and Michigan after those states’ anti-gay marriage laws were temporarily struck down by federal judges. According to polling data, in 2006, 54% of gay marriage supporters wanted the issue decided by the states, while 56% of gay marriage opponents wanted the issue decided by the federal government. In 2013, 54% of gay marriage supporters wanted the issue decided by the federal government, while 60% of gay marriage opponents wanted the issue decided by the states. The reason for this, of course, is that at this point in time, any federal definition of marriage will inevitably be gender-neutral. A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is impossible to pass in this day and age, but some sort of federal intervention to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states is looking more and more likely. Just five years ago, by contrast, my statements in support of a constitutional amendment legalizing gay marriage in all fifty states were generally met with the assertion that such an amendment could not pass.

The historian in me is reminded of the way in which proslavery and pro-segregation Southern politicians tended to handle the matters of slavery and segregation in relation to states’ rights. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, South Carolina delegates successfully pushed for federal protection of slavery in the form of a clause that would require slaves who escaped to free states like Massachusetts to be returned to their masters, regardless of what the free state governments wanted. In 1793, Virginia slaveholder George Washington signed a bill to further impede efforts of free states to offer shelter to runaway slaves. In 1850, even stronger legislation was enacted to force Northerners to extradite runaway slaves who crossed the Mason-Dixon line, even if Northern states desired to allow runaway slaves who entered their borders to live as free people. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court included in its infamous Dred Scott decision an assertion that no state could give blacks the rights granted to U.S. citizens. The ruling understandably caused great controversy in states like Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, where blacks were allowed to vote. The decision was hailed by proslavery Southerners. But then, in 1860, antislavery Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and white Southerners began howling about states’ rights being violated by the feds–while still paradoxically griping that various Northern states refused to extradite fugitive slaves and refused to allow Southerners to bring their slaves with them when vacationing in the North. Of course, once the South achieved temporary independence, a new Constitution was written with the fugitive slave clause intact, and a new clause was added making it illegal for any state to prevent visitors from bringing their slaves with them. So much for states’ rights. After the Civil War, this inconsistency on states’ rights continued. At various points, Congressmen Andrew King (D-MO) and Seaborn Roddenbery (D-GA), as well as Senator Coleman Blease (D-SC) introduced constitutional amendments to ban interracial marriage. In a speech, Roddenbery specifically referenced the fact that interracial marriage was legal in states like Massachusetts and that this could not be permitted by the federal government. During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration made sure that New Deal programs were kept segregated not only in Dixie but also in the North. Wisconsin wished to have its Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps integrated. CCC Director Robert Fechner, a Chattanooga native, responded that this was unacceptable and deported black CCC workers living in Wisconsin to segregated camps in Illinois. Nary a peep of protest on the grounds of states’ rights was heard from Southern segregationists. But starting in the late 1940s, when major federal intervention on behalf of civil rights became a real possibility, segregationists began to cry that states’ rights were being threatened by an overly powerful federal government. I guess expecting consistency from bigots is too much to ask.

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How to Stop Accusations of Racism? Stop Having a Racist Team Name

This country’s treatment of Native Americans over the years has been nothing short of shameful. While Native Americans have inhabited this continent for longer than any other group of people, they have been repeatedly treated like squatters when the government was not slaughtering them to make way for white settlers. Recently, the controversy over the “Washington Redskins” football team name has been re-ignited. To help demonstrate part of why such controversy exists, I thought it would be worth looking at OxfordDictionaries.com’s description of the history of the term “redskin.” According to the website, “Redskin is first recorded in the late 17th century and was applied to the Algonquian peoples generally, but specifically to the Delaware (who lived in what is now southern New York State and New York City, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania). Redskin referred not to the natural skin color of the Delaware, but to their use of vermilion face paint and body paint. In time, however, through a process that in linguistics is called pejoration, by which a neutral term acquires an unfavorable connotation or denotation, redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement. Red man is first recorded in the early 17th century and was originally neutral in tone.” In other words, “redskin” is not a neutral term like “Indian” or “Native American.” Rather, it is a racial slur in the same vein as the n-word. The only reason why the Washington Redskins has not already been forced by public outcry to change its name is that Native Americans have been so marginalized that it is not even widely known what terms constitute racial slurs against them. Daniel Synder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, has announced the creation of a new fund to benefit Native Americans, likely with the goal of putting out the fire of controversy. While I think his motives were likely less than pure, I applaud the creation of the fund. However, I find his argument that Native Americans would benefit from action not words to be disingenuous. Of course decisive action needs to be taken to redress the grievances that Native Americans have endured and continue to endure. But why can these actions not be taken in addition to changing the name of the Washington, D.C. football team rather than instead of changing it? If a Mississippi Billionaire owned a team named for an anti-black racial slur and decided to make an annual donation to the United Negro College Fund, they would still need to rename their team. If they made the donations and kept the team name, it would appear that they were simply interested in saving face. I realize that proposals that the NFL oust the Redskins from the league or that football fans stop buying tickets to games that the Redskins play in are likely to fall on deaf ears. However, I hope that one of these days, Snyder will have enough common sense to rename his team. I won’t hold my breath.

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