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The Invisibles
by Anthony Levin
2009-05-12 09:46:40
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Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.”
Ralph Ellison, ‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity’ (1946)

American political history overflows with the rhetoric of equality and individual rights. Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, delivered just four months ago and now published as a book, was no exception; in it the new President referred to the American ideals that “still light the world”. In Obama’s own words: “…because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve…” Absent the heavy din of excitement, this chapter in America’s racial history offers the opportunity to question another form of segregation, one less visible but no less symbolic: the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage.

In 1952 Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man, a novel that is, at its heart, about segregation. The protagonist is a black man who describes himself as invisible “simply because people refuse to see me.” At the time of the novel, a black man could barely walk into a hotel unless he was working on the door. As recently as 1967, he could not marry a white woman in some American states. The black person’s allocated space was well delineated. The institutional word operated as much through the official arm of the Jim Crow Laws as it did through unofficial treatment. Segregation was clearly understood because it was visibly experienced.

These facts sound purely historical and we tell ourselves now that they belong on the shelf with Ellison’s literary depiction of race riots and lynchings. But words have a vibration that is ever-present. Like classrooms, buses, churches and hotels, words themselves are spaces - containers in which we keep our meanings, fences with which we separate human experience. In certain contexts, like marriage, the words we use denote sacred cultural values. What are vows but our most cherished ideals made public? But although a word like ‘marriage’ may evoke the set pieces of sanctity, it is also capable of limiting moral choices and removing whole ontologies. In America, the historical prohibition on interracial marriage marked ‘marriage’ as a hierarchical institution, the essential purity of which was reserved for white people. Marriage vows could be taken, but their meanings would ultimately be different. Looking back, the separation of unions tells us about the perceived need to preserve white society. Black husbands and wives were being told: ‘Your marriage is not the same as ours.’ 

Four months into Obama’s Presidency, it is discomforting to remind America’s citizenry of this supremacist mentality. ‘We elected a Black President’, they might say. ‘We have healed.’ And they would be right, at least in part. On January 20 2009, America inaugurated Barack Obama.

While it may be only months since we witnessed the triumph of Hope over eight years of Fear, the power of institutional words remains. For all the talk of unity, our understanding of what constitutes ‘segregation’ has not evolved as much as Americans would like to think. On the same day that a majority of voting Americans elected a symbol of harmony, Californians voted to support Proposition 8 – a change to the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The result of the ballot proposition nullified the Supreme Court’s decision in 2008 to interpret the word ‘marriage’ so as to include same-sex couples. “The concept of marriage is imbued with basic substantive rights,” the Court had reasoned, “attributes that are integral to an individual’s personal liberty and autonomy.”

Some Californians reasoned otherwise. An interracial couple may now get married wherever they choose, but in California, a gay couple cannot. To attest to their love in public they will need to move to Massachusetts, Connecticut or Canada. Or as far away as Sweden, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, or any of the other 27 jurisdictions of the world which now formally recognise same sex relationships.

For the world has changed, and we must change with it” Obama told us, and he was right. The world has changed and changes daily. Marriage is no longer universally considered the exclusive province of heterosexual love. On May 1, Sweden became the seventh country in the world to allow full gay marital rights, and could become the only nation to allow them in a major church. That the word ‘allow’ should even creep into this news is an affront to 60 years of Universally Declared Human Rights.

Of course, affronts continue to occur in other parts of the world too, where things have changed for the worse. On 13 August 2004, the Australian federal government amended the Commonwealth Marriage Act to make marriage “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.” The same or similar words have been constitutionally enshrined in Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. Honduras, Bolivia and The Philippines. Vietnam, Serbia and Uganda. In Saudi Arabia, a couple can still be stoned and beaten for even admitting they are gay. In Bangladesh, where sodomy is still technically a crime, gay men and women actively conceal their sexuality and their love. In all these geographical spaces, the notion of ‘forever after’ for two men or two women exists on the other side of reality.

During the televised Vice Presidential Debate, Joe Biden declared “In an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint…between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple. But those words hold only archival value. When we dust off the rhetoric, we see that Obama still opposes same-sex marriage. The policy language may be dissembling, but the message from the heterosexual majority is clear: ‘Your love is not equal to our love.’ Like the renegade nations that it scolds daily, the American government is still trying to erase gay unions out of existence (albeit using different tactics). Gay couples are still being treated as if they are invisible. This segregation is all the more insidious because we can’t see it in the way that we can so obviously see racial segregation; we can’t identify if someone is gay just by looking at them any more than we can divine their relationship status.

This is not to victimise the gay community, with all its social, political and moral varieties. As an expression of the right to self-determination some gay couples don’t even desire marriage. But this does not vindicate the facts of segregation, even when they are less visible and not universally suffered. Segregation is about more than exclusion from space, custom or social status. The affect does violence to all of humanity and degrades our highest ideal: human dignity.

Numerous democracies no longer tolerate the notion of white supremacy, yet they persist in preserving heterosexual love as paramount; they have abolished prohibitions on interracial marriage, but prohibitions on gay marriage hold fast; many no longer use physical spaces to separate groups, yet they persist in using moral ones. Segregation is most repugnant when it masquerades as semantic difference, such as that between ‘marriage’ and ‘civil union’.

In all our institutions - of government, worship and family - our words hold power, often in different degrees. They erect walls and direct human traffic. In and out. My side and yours. Sometimes, the effect of legal words may be as discreet as the place where one can say ‘I do’.

“[T]he challenges we face are real….They will not be met easily or in a short span of time”, Obama cautions in his Inauguration opuscule. He asks his supporters to abide the change they seek with patience. Whether he is inherently measured, or simply straddling conservative ground early - his election being radical enough – we will not know for some months whether the world’s newest symbol of unity between black and white can heal that other chasm of difference: gay and straight.

For the moment, same sex couples in many parts of America and indeed the world, may only dream of that “noble idea” of which Obama reminds us: “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free”.

* * * * 

Cover photo from the Shankbone blog

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Emanuel Paparella2009-05-12 15:07:07
In looking over the photos that accompany this article (see link below it), the one that struck me the most was that with the poster proclaiming “No more nice gay,” which immediately brought me back to the raucous over the Miss California and her claim that she is being intimidated in the expression of her views. If that is true, we’d be on a new troubling violent approach to the solution of our fundamental disagreements. But the fact remains that two wrong never cancel each other; they remain two wrongs. Assuming the same bully-like intolerant violent tactics of the oppressor has never solved any social problem; it just creates another one. Dialogue and rational discourse and respect for human dignity and human rights ought to remain the best route to any possible solution. After all, the institution of marriage with its definition (still in most dictionaries) is millennia old, one of the foundations of most civilized societies anchoring the very idea of vows, trust and covenant. In my opinion, this question ought to be asked debated and explored: are there any limitations to the changing of the very definition and concept of marriage? And if not, what is the rationale for abolishing any limitation? Is changing the definition of marriage the same as abolishing segregation? (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-12 15:07:35
Interracial marriage is no longer misguidedly prohibited, but that prohibition, as abominable as it was, never threatened the very definition of the institution; it was based on a false definition of what it means to be human. How long will it take before we pass from inter-gender to inter-species marriage? If there are no limitations on one’s freedom, does society have the right to stop one from marrying his/her dog? Logically, it has not and there will people who will wish to do just that. A rich lady in New York left all her inheritance to her dog. Obviously she thought of her dog as her equal. This may sound glib, like a caricature of sort, but I am afraid it will not be long in coming. All that needs to be done is to change permanently the very definition, accepted throughout human history, of what a marriage is all about. At that point any definition ad defined by those who have political power will serve. Cicero who saw an emperor send his horse to the Senate had an apt expression: “ O tempora, o mores.”

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