I went out of town for a week and when I came back the mountains were flooded with spring. The maples were red, the pears were white, and the grass already in need of a trim. With temperatures in the 80s, it felt like May. It’s a strange season, people muttered, their arms and legs bare. Grocery stores were empty; no one knew how to shop. Too early for grilling, too warm for baking: restaurants had an early surge of customers, and started hiring for the summer. The pleasant sunshine made all of us uneasy, uncomfortable; vividly aware as we would have been during a snowstorm or a hurricane of the limitations of what we can affect in the world around us. We couldn’t help it: we bought tomato plants. But we didn’t plant them.
It’s also, unexpectedly, a political season. The presidential primaries, scheduled for May 8, held so late in that schedule of things that usually by the time North Carolina enters the field, our nods to the candidates are merely a formality. This year threatens to be different. It’s a Republican presidential primary. Democrats across the nation are sitting in the cheap seats, watching while the opposing party bloodies themselves in spring training. Our state’s Democratic governor is stepping down after one embattled term; our state’s gubernatorial primaries will be held on the same day, with a solid line-up of Democrats and Republicans ready to take the charge.
There’s another issue on the state’s ballot. There’s a proposition on the ballot that reads like this:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.
The choice given to the voters of our state on that day is simple: yes, or no.
Law is a funny thing: it’s a liminal understanding of ourselves, poured into the shell of words, encoded to our expectations. Laws change as social norms change, as new experiences move from unthinkable to possible to common. My partner’s great-aunt had what was then termed a “Boston marriage”: she and her wife lived together until death did them part, and Aunt Jessie never married again. A hundred years ago, Aunt Jessie wasn’t a threat to the sacred institution of marriage. But today, that institution is not as strong as it was; at least half of all marriages end up in divorce, and children are borne out of legal wedlock nearly as often as within in. In a desperate attempt to shore up this floundering institution, the lawmakers – which are us, by the way, we the people – do what we’ve always done. We find an enemy to define who we are. We locate the infamous other, who clarifies what and who we’re not. We’ve done it with race, first outlawing citizenry and then marriage between different races, before abandoning our laws as we recognized our wrongs. We’ve done it with political ideology, outlawing communism, until realizing that our commitment to freedom was stronger. We’ve stigmatized disability, income disparity and educational inequality, all the while maintaining a national fiction of the Common Man, Horatio Alger’s fictional character “pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.” And on May 8, we’re being asked to say again who we are by naming those we condemn: we’re being asked, as lawmakers, to state that two women, or two men, can not form a legal union.
Let me point out one thing here: There’s nothing in this amendment that would give two men or two women the right to form a legal union. There’s nothing in the current laws of North Carolina that offers that possibility. Two women can’t marry in this state. Married in other states, we can’t divorce here either. If we have children, our domestic partners have no legal role in their lives; we can’t take our children to doctors or pick them up from school without specific consent. We can’t be assured of being able to visit our loved ones in the hospital, or help them with end of life issues – at least, not without specific, often prohibitively expensive, legal assistance. Nothing in this amendment would change any of this. Kim Kardashian could still marry here, for however many hours that union lasted; Aunt Jessie and Mary Miles would have been illegal.
Voting “NO” on this ballot won’t give anyone rights that they didn’t have before. It won’t change the answer given to us or to our friends when they applied for a marriage license at the courthouse. It won’t change the blessing given by the many churches who already offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex unions. But allowing the vote to pass into a constitutional amendment would change the lives of our families, friends, neighbors, children, and ourselves more than we realize today. Adding this amendment to our state’s constitution is an act of defiance against the full and equal humanity of people whose love for each other doesn’t obey prescribed rules. Voting against it, voting NO, voices our belief that we live in a culture that’s made richer, not weaker, by diversity; voting NO brings us closer to loving each other.
I’m not much of an activist myself, and I’m as surprised as anyone else to find myself writing these words in the context of a church newsletter. But it’s a strange season. It’s strange that this is even an issue; fear generated by crisis, whether social crisis or environmental crisis, brings forward strange beliefs, unseasonable and anachronistic patterns of thought and action. But maybe we could look upon this as an opportunity for repentance. We aren’t given the chance to decide again on whether or not we believe different races should be treated as equal citizens; we aren’t often given the opportunity to decide, as a body of citizens, how God’s people should be treated in this time and place. But May 8 gives us just that opportunity, to demonstrate our heartfelt response to each other.