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Happily ever after, delayed

November 06, 2008|John Corvino | John Corvino is a philosophy professor at Wayne State University. johncorvino.com

On election night, I was less anxious about whether Barack Obama would become president than about whether a certain little girl could marry her princess.

I'm talking about the girl in the "Yes on 8" commercial who came home from school after reading "King and King" and announced, "And I can marry a princess!"

Not in California, she can't -- at least for the time being. Proposition 8 passed 52.5% to 47.5%, after a $74-million battle.

I say "for the time being" because nobody expects this to be the end of the story. Already, gay-rights lawyers have filed a challenge in the state Supreme Court, saying the measure is an illegal constitutional revision. The cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles did the same, as did the first couple wed in Los Angeles. It remains to be sorted out whether gays and lesbians married since June 17 will have their marriages annulled, or converted to some other status, or what.

Domestic partnerships will remain an option for same-sex couples in California. Other states, mainly along the coasts, will continue to recognize same-sex relationships: some with domestic partnerships, others with civil unions, and a few with outright marriage.

Eventually, this hodgepodge will prove legally unwieldy, or socially inconvenient, or morally embarrassing -- probably all of the above -- and California will revisit the marriage question. If trends continue -- gay-marriage opponents drew 61% of the vote in 2000 but only 52% on Tuesday -- marriage equality will someday prevail.

In the meantime, expect things to get messy. A same-sex couple married in Massachusetts (for example) will have absolutely no legal standing when traveling in California. A lesbian couple with a domestic partnership in Oregon may have to get married if they move to Connecticut. New Yorkers wed in California before the passage of Proposition 8 may have their marriage recognized by their home state but not by the state that married them. And so on.

Both supporters and opponents will argue about whether the courts are the appropriate venue for resolving these issues. Traditionally, a key role for the courts has been to protect minority interests against the whims of the majority. One of the especially painful ironies of the Proposition 8 vote is the fact that historically oppressed minorities -- including blacks, Mormons and Catholics -- were among the measure's strongest supporters.

It's worth remembering, however, that the courts follow social trends more often than they set them. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage in Loving vs. Virginia, the majority of states had already repealed such laws. (Incidentally, California was the first.) As disappointing as the legal setbacks are, they pale in importance next to the cultural shift undeniably underway.

One thing is clear: That shift is on the side of gay and lesbian equality. More and more gay and lesbian couples are openly committing to each other, having weddings, and even calling it marriage. The word is important. Princesses don't dream about someday "domestically partnering with" the person they love. They dream about marrying him -- or, in a minority of cases, her.

To that minority, a bare majority of California voters sent a discriminatory message: You are not good enough for marriage. Your relationships -- no matter how loving, how committed, how exemplary -- are not "real" marriage.

But "real" marriage transcends state recognition of it. And that's another reason why this debate will continue. Because it's not just about what California should or should not legally recognize. It's also about what sort of relationships are morally valuable, and why. And that's a debate that, slowly but surely, gay-rights advocates are winning.

The path to inclusion is not always direct and the pace of change almost never steady. This setback is by no means a final verdict. In the coming years, gay and lesbian citizens will continue to tell our stories. We will demonstrate that, like everyone else, we are worthy of having someone to have and to hold, for better or for worse. More Americans will realize that such relationships are a good thing -- not just for us but for the community at large.

When the smoke from this battle clears, Americans will realize that gays are not interested in confusing children or in forcing princesses on little girls who don't want them. But they also will realize that, when girls grow up to love princesses, they deserve to live happily ever after too.

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