Stuart Leavenworth: Court rulings reflect how quickly societal attitudes can shift

06/30/2013 12:00 AM

06/30/2013 7:26 AM

One measure of a healthy society is its capacity to embrace change. History is replete with struggles between enforcers of the status quo and those rebelling against it. The forces of stasis are powerful, and sometimes their caution has merit. But often we are surprised by how quickly attitudes can shift, technology can transform and antiquated dictates and dictators can be taken down.

Consider some of the big changes of the last two decades. In 1993, did you ever imagine how the Internet and digital technologies would so alter our everyday lives? Did you foresee how China would become the economic powerhouse it is now? Did you predict that, by 2008, the United States would elect its first black president?

When I was in college, I never thought it possible that, within a decade, the white oligarchy in South Africa would surrender power, allowing the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, in 1994, to become that nation's first black president. I had assumed that the struggle against apartheid would extend well into the 21st century and that Mandela might not live to see its demise.

Last week, we witnessed the pair of Supreme Court decisions that reflected how quickly attitudes have shifted over homosexuality and marriage equality. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and refused to rally behind the forces that had passed Proposition 8 in 2008, banning same-sex marriage in California.

Although not as far-reaching as some of us had hoped, the rulings were a mighty and historic blow against unequal treatment based on a person's sexuality.

Gay and lesbian advocates have been fighting for their rights since the Stonewall riots of 1969 and before. So, from their perspective, Wednesday's rulings were long in coming. Yet amid their ranks, and among many of my gay and lesbian friends, people are surprised that societal attitudes have advanced so quickly. In January of 2000, only 39 percent of Californians surveyed supported same-sex marriage and 55 percent were opposed, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. By May of this year, those numbers were reversed, with 56 percent surveyed supporting gay and lesbian marriage, and 38 percent opposed.

I count myself among those whose attitudes have shifted. A decade ago, I had no problem with marriage equality, but I didn't consider it to be a hot-button issue and sometimes joked about it, noting that "all people should have the freedom to lose their freedom by getting married."

Yet in more recent years, I've grown increasingly angry at the basic unfairness of laws such as Prop. 8 and DOMA. Married people enjoy tax breaks, retirement benefits and other perks not available to couples of the same sex. How is that fair? How can that be constitutionally justified?

One reason attitudes are shifting is because the arguments against same-sex marriage have been so unpersuasive.

Opponents claim that same-sex marriage undermines "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman, but there is no evidence to back that up. They make the claim that children are harmed when raised by same-sex couples, but there's no evidence for that either.

In The Bee on Thursday, an article included quotes from a 74-year-old south Sacramento woman who blamed the high court decision on liberals and "revolutionaries." "How can society continue to exist if you don't have the natural union of a man and woman?" she asked. "Children are the basic reason for marriage and people are trying to throw that all away."

Wrong on all fronts. There is no assault on traditional marriage or sign it is in significant decline. Currently there are about 60 million married couples in the United States, including just 114,000 legally married, same-sex couples. According to the Williams Institute, there are another 500,360 same-sex couples living together nationally. Even if they all married, it would do little to change the dominance of "traditional" marriage.

It is also misleading to claim that "liberals" are the driver of these societal shifts. In California and elsewhere, an increasing number of conservatives are coming out and advocating for gay and lesbian rights.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of liberals – such as priests and social activists within the Catholic Church – who continue to oppose same-sex marriage.

Finally, the claim that "children are the basic reason for marriage" is not only wrong but insulting to the millions of married couples unable to have children. Is their union of less value because they did not produce children?

Opponents of same-sex marriage might fare better if they'd stop offending vast swaths of society and starting acknowledging the benefits of expanding the security that marriage offers. When people get married, they team up and care for each other, plan a future, connect with their community and invest in it.

Yes, two people living together can drive each other crazy. But if they love each other, society should find a way to help them stay together, no matter their sexuality.

Follow Stuart Leavenworth on Twitter @SacBeeEditBoard. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/leavenworth.

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