Knowing that the Supreme Court gay-marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was on its way, I have been wondering about my relationship with lesbians and gays. It is a statistical impossibility that I did not know any gays or lesbians through my high-school years, but I cannot dredge up a memory. Certainly, no one ever confided in me nor did I harbor any deep-seated “suspicions.” On an intellectual level I knew there were people in the world attracted to the same sex, but that concept did not have any practical application. To show how little I understood, I thought of guys who might be effeminate as soft; had no idea a guy could be gay without being effeminate; and the idea of a woman not being sexually attracted to me was so silly I kept it out of my mind all together.
My parents were mute on the subject, not that I ever asked them. I cannot remember a single derogatory comment from either about a person or group, which is not to suggest that they had derogatory thoughts. We might laugh at television sitcom jokes about people being gay in which the punchline was “he’s gay.” Not funny in retrospect but much of 1970’s sitcom comedy qualifies as “not funny in retrospect.” I have a hazy recollection of Anita Bryant being upset that gay people existed. Even by age 16, however, I was enough of an intellectual snob to be cynical about the political positions of former beauty queens. All to say, as I made my way to Baylor University, homosexuality was an abstract concept.
College is where you learn stuff, right? In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Baylor was about as uptight of a major university as you could find outside of Brigham Young. While famous for our highly progressive “don’t dance, don’t tell” policy, the Baptist code of conduct was still in full force. Raised as a Lutheran and then a Methodist, I was not aware until Baylor that the Baptist code included a stunning number of youth ministers-to-be destined to struggle against claiming a sexuality that appeared pretty obvious to the rest of us. Within a semester, I realized that the number of gay people in the world might be larger than what I had thought before.
Still, no one made a pass at me. Footnote here-while I guess I can more easily accept the fact that males as opposed to females do not find me sexually attractive, in looking back on it I am at least mildly disappointed. Anyway, while the concept was still abstract it was at least a little more immediate. Fast forward to my sophomore year, when I pledged a fraternity.
For those of you who have not done it, the pledging part of fraternity life is a little bit ridiculous. Maybe less so at Baylor than at schools with deeper fraternity traditions, but we spent most of a semester involved in an “us against them” contest with the members that took considerable time and energy. The fraternity structured the process so that one respected member, the pledge trainer, was a liaison between the pledges and the members. Ours was Curtis Cole; he was on our side in the us against them game. Curtis was funny and even-keeled, with a way of diffusing tough situations. We were never particularly close, but I counted him as a friend and as someone with whom I will always have a deficit balance in the “favors done” ledger.
It was not until we were finished pledging that a pledge brother clued me into the fact Curtis was likely gay. Maybe the lightning-bolt tattoo on his ankle, pretty aggressive for 1980, should have clued me in. Or the fact that while Curtis always had a date, he never dated. I never worked up the nerve to discuss it with Curtis and he “never came out” while at school (I understand he did so later), but in my mind at least Curtis was my first gay friend. It was through that prism that I started to understand the issue; maybe if my experience had been different, my views would be also. But over the years I met a 100 Curtises, men and women who were smart, hard-working, kind-hearted and fun. I met some who did not live up to Curtis, but like the rest of life, the good far outweighed the bad.
So when the news broke of today’s decision, I immediately thought of the people who turned my knowledge of homosexuals from an abstract idea into real flesh and blood human beings. With them in mind I read the Court’s opinion; there is no doubt in my mind that the Court got it right. The dissents argue fiercely that while the policy result may be good (Chief Justice Roberts) or immaterial (Justice Scalia), the problem is the result was imposed by a court rather than voted for by the people.
Of course, the problem with that logic is that it sanctions the tyranny of the majority. No legislature can pass an ordinance that bans gun ownership; outlaws the Methodist church or muzzles the right to decry Obamacare. When the courts act to rob laws regulating guns of their force, they are not decried as “activist,” instead they are praised as “constitutional.” Why? Because the Constitution guarantees the rights to bear arms, practice one’s religion and speak one’s mind. The Constitution also guarantees the equal protection of the law and due process under it, but for some reason it is harder to understand that those ideas need just as much protection as the explicit protections engraved in the Bill of Rights..
It may have been better for all 50 states to have voted to allow gay marriage. It also would have been better for southern states to take Jim Crow laws off their books or not allow job discrimination based on gender. When those things did not happen, the Court had to decide whether blacks or women were getting equal protection and due process. Today, the Court said it was wrong that Curtis and millions of others could not take advantage of marriage laws. Legal critics of the decision will focus on its method; social critics will rage against its impact. But over time the benefit of saying to all the real flesh and blood lesbian and gays that you too are citizens worthy of the Constitution will wash those criticisms away. More than anything else, the decision reaffirms our fundamental premise: “All men are created equal.” Thanks to Curtis and the five-justice majority, I think I know what that means.