“Bigotry and intolerance, silenced by argument, endeavor to silence by persecution.”
– Charles Simmons
When state Sen. Mike Gabbard testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oahu last week, it was hard not to be reminded of Alabama Gov. George “segregation forever” Wallace. While Wallace’s infamous pro-Jim Crow speech has thankfully faded into the sepia-toned annals of history—and is now almost universally viewed as the hateful screed it was—Gabbard’s bigoted tirade was all too immediate. And there are many in and out of government who share his views. According to reports, Gabbard held up copies of the children’s books It’s Perfectly Normal and Daddy’s Wedding and warned that such sinful prose “would be taught in our schools” if HB444—a bill that would allow same-sex civil unions statewide—were to become law.
Even if you’re sympathetic to the gay cause, you may think the above comparison is overly dramatic. Sure, it’s too bad they can’t get married, or civilly united, or whatever—but we’re not talking about separate drinking fountains and old women being pushed to the back of the bus here. Don’t kid yourself: this is the civil rights movement of the 21st century. It is a simple question of equality, of not penalizing our fellow citizens for a fundamental characteristic no different than race or gender. You can throw out religion, you can throw out “values,” you can throw out public opinion—it’s all meaningless.
Opponents of HB444 like to point out that in 1998, Hawaii voters approved by a wide margin a constitutional amendment that gave lawmakers the authority to define marriage as between one man and one woman—an authority the legislature went on to exercise. (It’s interesting to note that many of the people who support this “traditional” definition of marriage cite the Christian Bible, which, while it does contain one famous line condemning homosexuality, is also rife with tales that seem to condone incest and polygamy.) But here’s the point: when it comes to fundamental human rights, the will of the majority doesn’t matter. Surely all thinking people would agree that even if 90 percent of the population wanted to legalize murder—or, to use a more plausible and analogous example, outlaw interracial marriage—it would be the government’s duty to intervene. That’s the reason we have a representative democracy, at least in theory: to provide a filter, a safeguard against mob rule. We’re often frustrated by our government and its lack of responsiveness, and we have a right to be.
But if the state Senate pulls HB444 out of the Judiciary Committee where it’s currently deadlocked, puts it to a full vote and passes it (something the House of Representatives already did), they will have accomplished a noble thing, and offered an all-too-rare example of governmental action that’s on the side of justice. By making Hawaii just the seventh state in the nation to allow gay marriage or civil unions, our elected officials will have ignored the rabid cries of Gabbard and his ilk, set aside the mass of red-shirted protestors who descended on the Capitol in the misguided belief that they were “defending the institution of marriage,” and struck a blow for progress in our time.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider this notion of “defending marriage.” The divorce rate in America hovers around 50 percent (some estimates place it even higher). In Las Vegas, you can get hitched in a drive-through chapel. It’s difficult to imagine homosexuals trivializing marriage any more than heterosexuals already have. Anyway, this fight isn’t about ceremony and symbolism. Whatever the law says, gay people can exchange rings, drink champagne and eat cake in front of a collection of friends and family, with any religious trappings they choose to attach. At issue are things like filing taxes, adopting children, making critical medical decisions. Granting committed couples these fundamental rights does not harm or undermine anyone. Period.
One final note: we don’t want to give the impression that we’re pinning all of this on religion; certainly there are tolerant people of faith who support gay rights (some of them showed up to counter-protest on Oahu, and we salute them). Bigotry, sadly, is the purview of the religious and secular communities alike. And not every person who opposes HB444 is a teeth-gnashing homophobe, either. Many are otherwise rational, compassionate individuals. Because of this, it can be tempting to let their intolerance slide and maybe even begin to believe that they have a point—that this debate isn’t a black-and-white matter of equal rights but a moral gray area where people on both sides are entitled to their opinion. Resist that urge; resist the seduction of the misguided majority.
This is a moment that will live in history. The stance we take now will be remembered. Sitting passively on the sidelines and tossing up your hands doesn’t cut it. Neither does straddling the fence, trying to placate intolerant people—decent and well intentioned as they may be—who hide behind their clergyman, their upbringing or their own ignorance-steeped fears.
The time has come to pick a side. Which one are you on? MTW