Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi are our much-touted examples of this fact, the realization that in the course of human rights and the procurement of basic dignity, the resulting measures of equality can be directly attributed to the means by which its champions agitated for change. Non-violence, education and discourse have always proved powerful weapons against ignorance and hatred.
As the recent Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama tiff on the relative contributions of Lyndon Johnson and MLK to the civil rights movement shows, the struggle for equality cannot be defined by a single action or moment in time. MLK’s struggle was a tireless and expansive one, yet he was hardly alone. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but his pen was one of many along the way. No cause worth fighting for is ever won or lost in a day, and no one person, regardless of how broad their shoulders might be, can carry the weight of a people to the promised land, wherever that might be.
So watching and reading about the proceedings in the California Supreme Court last week in San Francisco, full of lawyering and legalese, judicial back-and-forth and oral argumentation, I was reminded yet again of the power of the means. I am sure I am not going out on much of a limb by saying that regardless of the court’s decision, gay couples will still “marry” in that they will be bound by vows no state, court or law could ever break. Their resulting rights under the law will fluctuate from year to year and certainly from state to state, but the convergence of homosexuality, love and an enduring partnership seems unlikely to fade.
As Chief Justice Ronald George deals out precedents and previous rulings, stocked with nuanced, refined definitions of constitutional law and jurisdictional evolution, the place of homosexuals in society becomes similarly nuanced and refined. Gone are questions of outright morality or immorality, certainly gone are questions of the quantifiable existence of homosexuality. The means of the argument define an outcome of their own accord; the bar has been raised on the level of discourse and argumentation to demand frank analysis and engagement on the part of the justices, the lawyers and all those who hear about “that case about those gays in San Francisco.”
From Selma to Washington, civil rights activists fought a campaign for equality based on the required acceptance of the readily apparent – the color of one’s skin – as a quality both superficial and inescapable. In those days, a single court victory (Brown v. Board of Education, Kansas) could start a transformation.
Some 40 years later, with homosexuality the hidden truth or choice or curse – take your pick – its own path to acceptance is far from apparent. Rather, it remains desperate for definition as an immutable, fundamental facet of existence.
At least in California, when the high court attempts to define what homosexual partnerships are and are not, they first presuppose homosexuality as a definitive quality for inclusion or exclusion. Winston Churchill’s vernacular might call this trial not the beginning of the end of the debate over the rights of gays in society, no victory as such, but the end of the beginning – a patient process delivering educated, nuanced discourse to an increasingly informed populace that will forever march forward from the determined means to their eventual ends.