In the book Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s protagonist Jean Valjean spent an inordinate amount of time asking himself existential questions, including trying to figure out what his purpose was on earth. In the Broadway musical and movie, that internal battle gave rise to the song “Who Am I.”
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is presented with the opportunity to ask the same question: who are we as a country? If you want the details of the two cases, read this from the Washington Post. In a greater sense, the challenge before the Court today isn’t any different from the one put before them in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Once in a lifetime, we reach a crossroads where have to determine as a people what matters to us, and we have to put ourselves in the place of Jean Valjean.
I knew once and for all in the early 90’s how I felt about gay rights, and that was when I understood deep down that it wasn’t about gays and lesbians but essential human rights. I watched the public policy debates over what became Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell from within the Washington maelstrom, and it was so clear to me then this was just one small skirmish in a much bigger movement.
Fast forward a couple decades and here we are. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, and even he freely admits it was a bad idea and needs to be struck down. The current Justice Department didn’t want to bring it to the Supremes. Nobody is defending DOMA before the Supreme Court except the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives. Polls are now showing an inexorable trend toward an embrace of marriage equality. Some of the factors may be due to education, geography, and even religion, but there’s one larger than the rest. Acceptance of gay rights is predictably generational. Chances are good that if you remember when JFK or LBJ were in the White House, you’re less likely to to accept men marrying men and women marrying women. If you grew up during or after the Reagan administration, you can’t believe this is still a thing that people are arguing over, and you believe that history will consider your homophobic parents and grandparents to have been almost as bigoted as those who fought against Dr. King in the 60’s. The truth is, you’re probably going to be right. The good news is, as harsh as this will sound, the people who are wrong are inevitably dying off, and they're being replaced in the electorate by tens of millions of citizens who aren't hung up on irrelevant religious dogma as a rationale for otherwise mindless discrimination.
I’m hopeful (though I can’t yet say confident) that in another couple months, the Supreme Court will find a way to proclaim a new birth of freedom for all my friends from all corners of my life who just want to live like everyone else, free to enjoy the same benefits and make the same decisions on which relatives are going to have to be pissed off by the seating arrangements at the wedding reception.
This spring, through the judgment of the Supreme Court, the country has the chance to make a proud, Jean Valjean-like statement and join the civilized countries of the world who already know what nine states and the District of Columbia have already figured out: marriage equality makes us a more perfect union.
Photo credit: screenshot of Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, courtesy of YouTube.