Saturday, February 24, 2007

Virginia Apologizes for Slavery; Forbids Gays and Lesbians To Marry

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Here's an interesting example of one step forward, two steps back:

Meeting on the grounds of the former Confederate Capitol, the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously Saturday to express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.

Sponsors of the resolution say they know of no other state that has apologized for slavery, although Missouri lawmakers are considering such a measure. The resolution does not carry the weight of law but sends an important symbolic message, supporters said.

"This session will be remembered for a lot of things, but 20 years hence I suspect one of those things will be the fact that we came together and passed this resolution," said Delegate A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat who sponsored it in the House of Delegates.

That's the step forward. Here's the two steps back, which were taken two years ago:

On July 1 Virginia takes a big step backward, into the shadow of Jim Crow.

I do not write those words lightly or rhetorically. Although I'm an advocate of same-sex marriage, I have taken care not to throw around motive-impugning words such as bigotry, hate or homophobia. I have worked hard to avoid facile comparisons between the struggle for gay marriage and the struggle for civil rights for African Americans; the similarities are real, but so are the differences.

Above all, I have been careful to distinguish between animus against gay people and opposition to same-sex marriage. No doubt the two often conjoin. But millions of Americans bear no ill will toward their gay and lesbian fellow citizens, yet still draw back from changing the boundaries of society's most fundamental institution. The ban on gay marriage in 49 states (Massachusetts, of course, being the newly minted exception) may well be unfair and unwise, as I believe it to be. Yet people of good conscience can maintain that although all individuals are equal, all couples are not.

If I seem to be splitting hairs, that is because Virginia -- where my partner and I make our home -- is not splitting hairs. It has instead taken a baseball bat to civic equality, thanks to the so-called Marriage Affirmation Act.

The act -- really an amendment to an earlier law -- was passed in April, over Gov. Mark R. Warner's objections, and it takes effect July 1. It says, "A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges and obligations of marriage is prohibited." It goes on to add that any such union, contract or arrangement entered into in any other state, "and any contractual rights created thereby," are "void and unenforceable in Virginia."

There is room for disagreement on whether symbolic gestures like apologizing for slavery really lead to any substantive change. What seems unarguable is that it doesn't make much sense for Virginia to acknowledge and atone for its part in one historic injustice while having created another a scant two years earlier.

Maybe 20 years from now, Virginia will again be apologizing -- for refusing to legally recognize the rights of an entire class of human beings to marry and raise a family based solely on gender configuration.

1 comment:

Katharine said...

Given the South's history on civil rights, I think you might want to add about 50 years to your estimate of when Virginia will be apologizing to gay and lesbian people.