Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Power of a Single Word

So today's post was going to be about dogs--my son's dog, in particular--and the blurred line that so often seems to exist between fiction and reality. Then I got home and went online and read some of the really stupid things people have been saying with regard to the Prop 8 trial going on now in San Francisco, and suddenly I was no longer in the mood to write about puppies--no matter how cute--which has led me to post this rant instead. Mea culpa. But, hey, at least it's sorta writing related.

For those of you who don't know, Prop 8--or Prop Hate, as I like to call it--is the measure that's once again placed a ban on same-sex marriage in California. The plaintiffs in the trial currently underway are challenging the measure's constitutionality. FWIW, both the Governor and the State Attorney General have declined to defend the measure because they don't think it's constitutional either. But that's not my point. Interestingly, the attorneys for the plaintiffs are David Boies and Theodore Olson who represented Al Gore and George W. Bush (respectively) in the Supreme Court Case that effectively resolved the disputed election of 2000. All of which gives a whole new meaning to the term "bi-partisan cooperation". That's not my point either.

Make no mistake. I realize this is a complex issue with many ramifications. Marriage is a legal and civil institution. It's a social contract. For many people it can also be a religious sacrament, the outward symbol of an emotional commitment or a spiritual union ordained by God. People tend to have very strong feelings about this thing we call marriage. And that is my point.

One commentor asked the question, "isn't this dispute all about nothing more than a word?" To which several people responded with variations of the "why can't gay people just call their relationships something else?" riff...which is when I began to lose my puppy praising mood.

Nothing more than a word? I'm sorry...what did you say? To an author, that's roughly analogous to saying, "Yo Mama!" It's an invitation to a semantic brawl. Words have power and meaning. They're not just random syllables. If Civil Unions and Marriages were actually legally indistinguishable from one another (they're not, btw, but that's a blog post on its own) perhaps it wouldn't matter so much what you called them. Perhaps. But "separate but equal" can never really be equal and if they actually were the same thing...why would there be any need to call them by different names?

No. With all due respect to The Bard, that which we call a rose...should damn well be called a rose no matter what color it is or who's doing the gardening.

When you think about it, the concept of marriage predates countries and governments and probably organized religion as well. I think the philosopher Hannah Arendt (who is my new personal hero, btw) said it far better than I ever could--way back in 1959:

"The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which "the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one's skin or color or race" are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs. [Dissent, Winter 1959]"

Wow. if I might be allowed to say one more thing about the whole civil union v marriage issue, it's this: In my opinion, anyone who can't acknowledge that the word marriage carries more meaning, embodies more history and evokes a far greater emotional response than the term civil union is only deluding him or herself. If I had my way, they'd all be forced to watch every damn episode ever made of "Say Yes to the Dress." Back to back to back. With no break in between, no time off for good behavior.

Beyond the blatant unfairness of attempting to deny someone a right most of us take for granted, I'm incensed by the idea that anyone would seek to deny another human being  the use of a word that is practically synonymous with love and commitment.Language belongs to everyone. That and opposable thumbs are pretty much humanity's claim to fame. And love and commitment--those belong to everyone, too. At least they should. They're not the kinds of things anyone should be allowed to regulate for someone else.

No, this issue is not "all about a word".  It's about denying people a basic human right. It's about the indignity of not being allowed to decide for yourself how you define what may be one of the most important relationships of your life...and what you choose to call it.

But, as an author--especially as an author of romance, someone whose day to day work is pretty much an on-going homage to the concepts of love and commitment--I think that even if it were "all about a word" that would be enough.


Kelly Jamieson said...

Very well said PG! You rock.

Meg Benjamin said...

Oh, bravo PG! You've hit it right on!

sherry said...

Great job I agree with you anyone who wants to get married should be able to do so. I myself would never get married I just don't think that most marriages work out. But if I ever want to that's my right. I think if a gay couple want to get married they should be able to.

Rosemary Gunn said...

Loved every wonderful word in this post! PG, you ROCK!!

Kinsey Holley said...

I do not see how any group of people can harm the institution of marriage more than it has already been harmed by heterosexuals. No fault divorce, divorce rate at 50%, people who get married 5, 6, 7 times - it hasn't been a sacred, permanent institution in a couple generations. Before that, it was for large segments of various societies a means of acquiring, consolidating, and keeping economic and territorial power. The idea that God ordained marriage between 1 man and 1 woman at the dawn of human history is belied by the entire Old Testament (and I say this as a married Christian).

Having said all that...marriage is a religious rite and the State's got fuck all business being involved in it -- except that it allows the State to tax people at a higher rate. It's long past time for the State to recognize civil unions for EVERYONE, gay or straight, and for people with religious beliefs to have their marital status blessed by their clergy. By making it a matter of contract law, the State could keep its grubby little fingers in everyone's pockets, parental rights would still be recognized by the courts, and the family unit would still have legal protection.

A constitution is supposed to enshrine existing rights. The only actor whose rights are specifically restricted in a constitution should be the State's.
There's something very offensive about using a constitution as a means of denying a right to a group of people.

There's my Libertarian rant for the day.