As many readers know, we Tennesseans will vote November 7 on Amendment 1 to the state constitution, an amendment worded so as to deny legal marriage rights to same-sex couples and to outlaw recognition of such marriages if they occur elsewhere. If this amendment passes, discrimination against a particular group of citizens will be even more deeply chiseled into Tennessee law than it is now.
The implications of this vote are serious, especially because denying anyone the right to marry a chosen partner has real, bottom-line consequences. Matrimony confers literally hundreds of legal privileges, including personal and economic benefits that affect tax rates, insurance, property rights, social security, inheritance, and definitions of family and kinship.
History records parallel situations in which majorities in Southern states denied the legal right of marriage to certain minorities. For centuries and as late as the 1960s, some Southern states “protected marriage” by prohibiting the unions of black slaves and, later, of interracial couples. Then as now, “protectors of marriage” built their arguments mostly on tradition, the Bible, and predictions of social decline if marriage rights were more inclusive. Then as now, irrational anxiety about diversity and an arrogant sense of moral superiority triggered spiteful legislation denying certain citizens social justice.
Shifts in social paradigms never come easily, and the expansion of human liberty has always spurred opposition from those who prefer the status quo. Historically, equal treatment and social justice have won out in our society, but only after heated opposition to change has spent its course. (Ask Southern blacks. Ask American women.) Whatever the outcome this November in Tennessee, we can thus be confident that enlightened views toward same-sex unions will prevail.
Current movements in Scandinavia, Canada, Great Britain, Spain (of all places), and a number of other states in our Union—including, most recently, New Jersey—show how quickly the world is coming to accept a broadened definition of family. Very soon, no doubt, we Tennesseans will look back and wonder how we could have seriously considered branding yet another minority group as unfit for marriage, incapable of shaping their own lives and sharing equitably in the patterns of personal initiative that have always energized our collective prosperity.
A vote for Amendment 1 is not just a vote to marginalize an already marginal group of relatives and friends in Tennessee. It is a calculated slap in the face of every gay and lesbian person anywhere in the world.