Thursday, May 15, 2014

"It's Like 1957 in Little Rock, a New Dispensation": An Update on the Marriage Equality Story in Arkansas

This past week has been amazing. It's like 1957 in Little Rock. A new dispensation, as the theologians say.

That's my friend Kae Chatman talking on Facebook in the quotation above. She's a former colleague of mine from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, where we were both on the religion faculty (though I spent most of my time at Philander doing administrative work and not teaching).

"Like 1957 in Little Rock" refers, obviously, to the integration crisis in Little Rock in that year, which Arkansas's governor provoked when he defied the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Topeka that led to desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, and President Eisenhower had to bring in the National Guard to quell the civil disobedience and assure that the school was integrated.

Like me, Kae lived through that period. We both remember it, though it happened in our childhood. We grew up in a world in which "a new dispensation" took shape all around us with great rapidity, as old social norms about who fits where in the racial scheme of things changed with lightning speed, and as many of our fellow citizens kicked and screamed, threw fits, shouted bible this and bible that.

To no avail: things changed. For the better, if racial equality (under law, if not in fact: racial equality is still to arrive in fact in these United States) is a benchmark for describing better in a given society. And people who resisted the change had to find ways to get used to it. Regardless of bible this and bible that and, as I heard one of my aunts say in 1957 after she admitted that if she were "colored," she'd be "out there marching for my rights, too": "But Daddy lived and died a segregationist, and so I'm a segregationist, too."

Things changed. And people had to to adjust to the changes, whether they liked them or not. Just as things are now changing in Arkansas, when the cover of the latest issue of our statewide alternative weekly, Arkansas Times, is the cover you see at the top of the posting. After the ban on same-sex marriage was struck down by a judicial ruling in my little state last Friday, over 400 same-sex couples have legally married — though only five of 75 counties in the state respected the judicial ruling and permitted same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses this week.

And Pulaski County, in which Steve and I married along with 168 other same-sex couples on Monday and more on Tuesday and Wednesday, has now stopped issuing licenses to gay couples, pending the state Supreme Court's final decision on this matter. For now, at least, the Arkansas Supreme Court has refused the request of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (who supports marriage equality, but says he's obliged to defend the state's existing law) to stay the marriages — but the process of permitting same-sex marriage has still been halted after the Supreme Court ruling, and we await the outcome as legal authorities and political leaders haggle, with intense behind-the-scenes pressure from religious lobbying groups who want to shut the whole thing down.

In an Arkansas Times article published yesterday, Max Brantley notes how this religion-based lobbying pressure is being exerted: he notes that after Judge Chris Piazza handed down his ruling striking down the ban on same-sex marriage, all the state's county clerks held a conference call discussing how they should respond to the judicial ruling, and

In a discussion led in significant part by some lawyers who in their private lives have distinguished themselves in the cause of evangelical Christian activities (the base for strongest anti-gay-marriage sentiment), county clerks got this message: Only the six named defendants had any liability concerns in continuing to refuse same-sex couples and even those counties could claim some minor technicalities as excuses. While Piazza made it clear it was unconstitutional for clerks to deny licenses to same-sex couples, he failed to specifically list all the many Arkansas statutes that refer to marriage as being between a man and woman.

And so those of us whose lives are on the line right now in these backroom determinations and in the legal and political wrangling wait to see whether our marriages will soon be overturned (if we did, indeed, marry after Judge Piazza's decision), or whether our option to marry will now disappear. For all of us and many folks who care about us, what's going on is a matter of, well, real life — it's a matter of our real human lives, of legal rights others take for granted (like the right to visit a spouse in the hospital and make medical decisions about her, the right to be included in his health insurance policy, the right to all the tax advantages that legally married couples have, etc.).

We wait, watch the wrangling, listen to religious authority figures like my own bishop assure us that they really, really do love us (even if they hate our sins) and want the best for us — they really do — but, no, I'm sorry, you just can't have those rights everyone else takes for granted. Because genitals. And procreation and bible. Sorry. When we were talking about loving you and protecting your rights, we weren't talking about the real you and those real rights you'd love to have along with everyone else in the world, but can't enjoy.

Because you're black female gay. And the bible says.

We who are waiting are watching the very same process now playing out that some of us remember from our childhood, when amazing, monumental legal breakthroughs like Brown v. Topeka or the 1964 Civil Rights opened doors and people long starved for human rights immediately walked through them, but those doors were then quickly and brutally slammed shut by people claiming Love and Respect for Rights, but enacting the precise opposite of love and respect for rights. 

Because the bible says. And politics demand. And things just don't change in the twinkling of an eye, and why can't they wait until those of us with more sober heads and a bigger view of it all — the people trained to parse power and allocate its goodies to you underlings of the world— deliberate and assure that everything is done with decency and order?

We wait, and our lives hang in the balance, and it really doesn't do us much good at all for you who are the people trained to parse power and allocate its goodies to the underlings of the world to blame us for having been born in and grown up in places like Arkansas, for not having the good sense to pick up and move some place more enlightened. 

A lot of us simply don't have the options you've had to make such shifts. A lot of us have aging parents and other family members back home that someone has to choose to take care of, because our happily married straight siblings are sure as hell not making that choice — and so it falls on us queer sons and queer daughters, who have long been expected to provide such care for aging parents, to pick up the pieces you refuse to pick up. We have jobs here, lives here, and we can't easily uproot ourselves, as critically aware as we may be that we certainly do not live in the new Jerusalem.

While we watch and wait for rulings to be handed down that will radically affect our human lives, we also look at what's happening in Idaho, where a federal judge has just refused the governor's request for a stay of same-sex marriages, and where those marriages may begin as soon as tomorrow. We look at Virginia, where it seems that at least some of those who parse power and allocate its goodies are open right now to arguments which recognize that real human lives are at stake in these deliberations. We look at Oregon, where a federal judge just blocked an attempt of the National Organization for Marriage to intervene in a legal process considering that state's ban on same-sex marriage.

We watch. We wait. Because that's really all we can do as those with power in their hands deliberate (though we also, of course, can and do join our voices together to demand equal treatment under the law). And as we watch and wait, we remember how long and tortuous the road to equal rights for people of color was in the past, in the living memory of many of us, and how every breakthrough for human rights was attended by a vicious backlash reaction.

But even with those backlashes, this story of those who have gone before us in the struggle for justice gives us hope, since we believe with every fiber of our being that this is a story about the moral arc of the universe and how it bends ineluctably in the direction of justice. And an important step in the process of bending that moral arc is letting the rest of the world see our human faces — a critically significant lesson the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century taught us — so that more and more people can begin to understand that these deliberations and legal and political wrangles, and the religious rhetoric that keeps them going, are ultimately all about real human beings with real human lives.

The kind of real human beings depicted on that Arkansas Times cover at the head of this posting. Whose faces, once seen, can't be unseen. 

And therein lies the very marrow of the hope we have that, no matter the heartbreaking setbacks, the movement to bend justice's arc in which our lives have become entangled whether we like it or not is a movement whose momentum will be hard to stop, as more and more people living around us begin to see the real human face of that movement, and to recognize that this is what the movement is all about.

P.S. Please see this subsequent posting, which is footnote to the one above, noting that marriages resumed in Pulaski County, Arkansas, today after Judge Chris Piazza clarified his ruling last Friday striking down the ban on same-sex marriage.

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