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No exceptions to equality

No exceptions to equality


A California state senator who helped lead the fight for marriage equality makes her case for fair treatment: If the state takes away gay citizens' rights, who will be next?

Editor's note: State Senator Figueroa, a longtime supporter of gay rights, voted in favor of the marriage equality bill that passed both houses--the senate on September 1 and the assembly on September 6--and that that Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar said on September 7 that he would veto as soon as it reached his desk.

Some people think you and I and the millions of Californians who agree with us are redefining the word marriage. I don't agree with them about that, but more important, I think this turns the focus to the wrong question. And that's the real problem with the whole debate we're having right now.

The question we should be asking is whether we are redefining another word, a far more fundamental one: equality. That's what all this is really about. Every court that has weighed in on the question of same-sex marriage has been interpreting a constitutional provision that says all citizens are entitled to equal treatment under the law. And whatever can be said about the definition of marriage throughout history, the definition of equality hasn't changed very much. It means exactly what it has always meant, and just what it says--unless you subscribe to some rather extreme doctrines.

Before the discussion about marriage became so prominent, lesbians and gay men were frequently accused of asking for "special rights" when they fought for antidiscrimination laws that would protect them from being fired from their jobs or denied housing. But you don't hear much about "special rights" anymore.

That's because if ever there was a set of special rights, it's the set that comes with marriage. Right now those special rights are reserved by heterosexuals only for themselves.

There's nothing even remotely fair about that, or equal. This is exactly why we have raised equality to a constitutional position. A constitution enshrines principles that are the most important to us, and says that, no matter what, they cannot be violated, even by a majority vote. Especially by a majority vote.

Some of my colleagues in the California legislature have argued that gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as heterosexuals do; they say that everyone in California, gay or straight, has the equal right to marry someone of the opposite sex. With all due respect, I have no idea how anyone can think that argument makes any sense at all. Why would a lesbian or gay man want to marry someone of the opposite sex? What sort of a right is that, and what does it say about the person making such an argument?

And particularly for those of us who are heterosexual, why would we want to subject ourselves--or our children--to such a bizarre prospect? "Don't ask, don't tell" works badly enough in the military; it's an even worse idea in a relationship as intimate and personal as marriage.

Lesbians and gay men need the same right that heterosexuals take for granted: to have the state recognize their relationships with someone they love. And the only way that equality will happen is if their relationships can be legally recognized by the state as marriages, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities that the rest of us have. The law should not discourage them from forming loving, complicated, and wonderful families.

Domestic partnership was California's first step toward equality. It is still not fully equal to marriage, but I'm proud that we were the first state that didn't wait for a court decision before we began trying to treat same-sex relationships with the respect and honor they deserve. Now there are people who want to undo even that. In addition to the fact that our governor decided to pander to the religious right by vetoing California's same-sex marriage bill, we have three ballot initiatives circulating that would make California a much less admirable "first": the first state to take away existing rights from same-sex couples.

I for one will be fighting against those proposals and urging voters to "just say no" when someone asks them to put their signature on inequality. I continue to be troubled by the many states that are passing laws which enshrine the prejudices that characterized our treatment of gays and lesbians in times past. I will not let my state join them. California should lead the nation forward, not backward.

More important, I will resist any effort to carve out exceptions to constitutional guarantees of equal protection--for lesbians and gay men or anyone else. State laws that guarantee prejudice are bad enough, but constitutional protection for inequality is something we simply cannot tolerate. If we revoke the promise of equality that is so clear in our constitution, what else will we want to take away--and who will we want to take it away from? Which people should have the right to exercise their own religious choices and which people should be excluded? Should only some groups of parents have the right to raise their children without government interference? Will we carve up the right of free speech and give it to a few selected groups but deny it to others?

This new movement to exclude lesbians and gay men from the promise of equal protection is unprecedented in this nation's history, and it must be stopped. More important to me, at least, is that this is not a fight that lesbians and gay men should be fighting on their own. It is something that affects all of us, gay or straight. I don't want to think that my two wonderful children could have been denied the marriages that are so important to their lives--and mine--if they had been born gay rather than straight.

I will be fighting this battle in California, and I hope I will be joined by those in other states who are also facing it head on. Equality is not something that allows for exceptions. There is no such thing as "kind of equal," at least not under the Constitution--and the dictionary--that I grew up with.

I think it's time we began to focus the debate on the people who want to redefine that word--and I think the burden is on them to show why some people are more equal than others.

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