Saturday, May 17, 2014

Arc of the Moral Universe Arcs Through Little Old Arkansas, and We Move an Inch: Keeping Hope Alive

Thanks to all of you who provided such insightful, wise, empathetic feedback in the thread of comments responding to my posting yesterday about the decision of the Arkansas Supremes to stay same-sex marriages yesterday. By the point at which the court issued its stay, I understand that more than 450 same-sex couples had married legally in Arkansas in one week — a remarkable number, when one considers the size of our state, its general backwardness and its bible-belt culture of hostility to gay people and gay rights. It's also remarkable that so many marriages of same-sex couples occurred during the brief window of opportunity when one notes that almost every county in the state refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite a judge's order.

I noticed when I went through the listing of marriages in the May 14 issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (I discussed that list here and provided a photo of the page with a link to the Washington Post article in which it appeared), that some of the marriages were for couples living in states contiguous to us — Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. So not only were same-sex couples living in our little state flocking to any courthouse they could find to obtain marriage documents, but couples were even coming from out of state, from as far away as Dallas. Again: remarkable, it seems to me . . . . 

And then the state's Supreme Court chose to shut the whole thing down. What the final outcome of  this will be, I can't really hazard a guess, since I have absolutely no insider information at all. Have I mentioned that Steve and I are very much non-A-list gay folks in the local gay community, the sort who don't move in circles of power and influence and who wouldn't hear the kind of insider information to which people with better connections to the Human Rights Campaign or the powerbrokers of our very insider-clubby local media have access? We're the kind of gay folks that North Carolina senator Jesse Helms once dismissively tagged "garden-variety" queers.

So, though all that's going on in the legal and political sector radically affects my own life and my husband's, I can only speculate about what's going on — with a preface about the speculation: I've mentioned a number of times on this blog in the past that my father was an attorney, a member of the Arkansas bar. And that he ran for judges' positions twice, and was (thankfully) defeated both times.

Growing up in the household of an Arkansas barrister with close ties to judges and aspirations to the bench made me critically aware at a very early age that judges are anything but impartial arbiters of legal matters. Judges are connected. They make their judicial decisions on the basis of their connections, though they may also, in many (but certainly not all) cases, try strenuously to adhere to principles.

Judicial decisions are not made in a vacuum, I learned early in life — especially as I watched how the legal authorities I knew personally dealt with the controversial racial issues that were everywhere on their radar screen as I was coming of age. Typically, judges make their decisions with a certain . . . sensitivity . . . to the needs and opinions of those with power and money in any given culture.

And so I'm inclined to wonder if the stay that my state's Supremes have just issued owes more than a little to the political aspirations and the connections of more than one justice, and to the hope of at least some of the justices that, by kicking this issue down the road, they can buy time for whoever rises to power in the fall elections (at which it has long been predicted the Republicans will have an advantage) to weigh in on this controversial issue, and to determine its final outcome.

That's one side of the coin. The other side is that for a very tiny period, our state, which has long preferred to drag up the rear of all progressive movements, and to be behind the moral arc of history vis-a-vis human rights, appeared to many people to be on the cutting edge.

We typically prefer to clean up the messes we ourselves make out of our obstinacy and ignorance. All of us who grew up in the shadow of the ugly Central High crisis in Little Rock in 1957 know that Arkansas will never fully live down the shameful image it gained for itself worldwide through that crisis.

We're used to apologizing. It seems to me that the justices of our Supreme Court have become so inured to doing things in that make-a-mess-then-apologize-later way that they just could not see their way to letting us remain on the cutting edge of history for a change. Hence their decision: it has become so customary for us Arkansans to function this way that it's comfortable to choose the behind position rather than the front one, and being on the wild and crazy edge of history's moral arc for a week's time was decidedly not comfortable for many of us — especially the movers and shakers who prefer to control and manage everything that happens in our state.

Will the marriages of those of us same-sex couples who did legally marry in the past week now be declared null and void? In their comments in the thread to which my first link points, Alan McCornick and Chris Morley provide very good reasons for hoping that this will not be the case. I hope along with them. I do seem to recall that in Utah, though, after same-sex marriages were stayed, the marriages of couples who had married were nullified? I may be misinformed about that.

What will happen to the many legal rights that seemed to open for all of us when we legally married — the right to list ourselves as the legally married parents of our children, or the right of a spouse to be carried by his or her spouse's health insurance, for instance? Will those rights vanish and will the documents we obtained as a result of our marriages be nullified?

I hope not. As hrh also points out, no matter what happens, we now have a legal marriage document that the federal government respects, and that provides us rights and privileges accorded to all other married couples in the eyes of the federal government. And that's not nothing.

Meanwhile, keeping hope alive: the photo at the head of the posting is of our friends Steve Thomas and Allan Cox being married by our friend Wendell Griffen this past Monday. It's an AP photo taken by Christina Huyn that appears in this Guardian article today, as well as in this article in the Wisconsin State Journal. (I somehow managed not to photo-bomb this particular shot, darn it, though my Steve and I were standing right there as this picture was taken.)

An outstanding statement by Judge (and Pastor) Griffen has also just been published by the Weighty Matters blog of the Maston Foundation. In the statement, Wendell explains why the church he pastors, New Millennium Baptist church, has decided to become a gay-inclusive, gay-affirming Baptist church rooted in African-American culture — and why he officiated at a number of marriages of same-sex couples in Little Rock this past week, including Steve's and mine. 

As he notes in this sermon he originally wrote in 2012, as his church studied these issues before consciously choosing to become gay-inclusive and gay-affirming, the congregation learned the following:

Our experience also allowed us to rethink and re-envision what covenant means. Covenant involves much more than a ceremony. Covenant is about commitment and relationship. Our study showed that heterosexuals enjoy economic, social, and legal benefits that are denied other people. In our conversation with the same-sex couple who has been together for over forty years—longer than my wife and I have been married—we learned that one member of the couple was denied the opportunity to be in the other's hospital room overnight following a surgical procedure.* Arkansas does not recognize their relationship, despite all its evidence of commitment, as legitimate. They cannot marry. They cannot file a joint tax return. They cannot claim each other as dependents for health care benefits. For a brief time they were legally banned from being adoptive or foster parents.** No matter how committed they are to each other, their relationship is not considered legitimate. Meanwhile, people who are heterosexual are permitted to marry—and receive all the social, economic, and legal privileges associated with marital status—whether they are committed to each other or not.

And then he adds,

As we became better informed about these and other aspects of heterosexual privilege we remembered our personal and collective experiences with injustice. We recalled that during slavery marriage ceremonies did not protect slaves from being sold away from each other and that Baptists misused the Bible to justify human trafficking, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow segregation. We recalled that black people and women were denied citizenship and social equality. We remembered the hurtful impact of those injustices.

As I say, I have hope. What feeds my hope is that history's moral arc has just arced through Arkansas, moving us one tiny inch in a direction that should have been our direction for a long time now, if we really wanted to overcome our shameful legacy of denying rights to people on the basis of skin color (and gender). As more and more people in our little state begin to catch on to the recognition that the gay folks they exclude from power and privilege are human in the same way they themselves are human, and that it's just as wrong to engage in such exclusionary behavior in the area of sexual orientation while shouting bible verses as it was to do the same when race was the controverted topic, maybe we'll begin to move an inch more.

I surely do hope so.

*I think Wendell is referring to Steve and me when he mentions the couple who have been together over 40 years. His church invited us to speak to them as they discerned God's will about including and affirming gay folks. I've told the story of what happened when Steve had a hip replacement in 2005 previously on this blog, but for readers who don't know it, this is the story to which Wendell is referring:

When Steve had the hip replacement surgery, I insisted on staying overnight with him in his hospital room, to be certain his needs were attended to. I slept on a little fold-out chair-bed for two nights. One of the nurses on duty one of those nights was clearly very unhappy that I was in the room, and she made her displeasure known in every way possible. On her watch, Steve was experiencing intense post-op pain. His surgeon had told him never to let the pain get out of control, and had written an order for Steve to be given pain medicine anytime he asked for it in the post-op period.

Steve asked for pain medicine from this nurse. She refused. In desperation, we called the personnel office of the hospital to ask how we could get the nurse to comply with the doctor's orders. The nurse was reprimanded and told to comply with the surgeon's directive.

I did not know this at the time, since Steve withheld the following information from me, but he later told me that when she then administered the i.v. that contained the pain medicine, she took it directly from the refrigerator and squeezed it into his veins rapidly without warming it. He says it was one of the most intensely painful things he's ever lived through. This hospital is the Catholic hospital in our city. The nurse was, I thought, Catholic, but of that I was not ever absolutely sure. It was abundantly clear to me that her hostility — and her downright cruelty — were rooted in religion-based homophobia of some kind.

**This refers to the ban Arkansas passed several years ago prohibiting all unmarried couples from adopting, which the state Supreme Court quickly declared unconstitutional.

(Thanks to Chris Morley for posting a link to the Guardian article in yesterday's thread about the stay on same-sex marriages.)

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