EDITOR’S BLOG — As the editor, I need to decide what meets our standards of good news. I was stymied this week when reading about South Africa becoming the fifth nation to sanction gay marriage, after the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada.
I know for much of the public — here and in Africa — the subject of same-sex couples still evokes strong negative feelings and, for some, the issue has already been decided by their religion’s impression of “the word of God.” But, I have to admire, and thus promote to print, the way in which the African National Congress party leaders got down to brass tacks and established with certainty the standard with which this issue should be judged…
Religions are many. Even more plentiful are ideas about what is right. The ANC, however, which has many members in religious opposition to gay marriage, is choosing to hold up the Constitution — presumably modeled on our own in America — as the standard. It prohibits discrimination against South Africans based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Couldn’t get any clearer than that.
Though most lawmakers oppose gay marriage, the parliament on Tuesday voted for the measure 230–41. The New York Times reported that the governing ANC party whip-cracked decisively and members were expected to “support the bill, regardless of their personal beliefs.”
Vytjie Mentor, the party’s caucus chairman, told a South African newspaper, The Sunday Independent, that there was “no such thing as a free vote or a vote of conscience.”
“How do you give someone permission to discriminate in the name of the A.N.C.?” he said. “How do you allow for someone to vote against the Constitution and the policies of the A.N.C., which is antidiscrimination?”
Quite compelling. The New York Times also reported:
The African Christian Democratic Party said the Parliament had ignored the views of ordinary citizens — and international norms. “We are out of step with the rest of Africa and with the rest of world,” he said. “The international norm is civil unions, as opposed to same-sex marriages. What happened today conflicts with the views of the majority of South Africans.”
In our history we have seen the “international norm” also support slavery and bigotry. When Sammy Davis Jr, a famous black American entertainer in the mid-20th century, married white Swedish-born actress May Britt in 1960, interracial marriage was still illegal in 31 US states out of 50.
I just saw for the first time this year, the film classic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I loved it, and highly recommend the original version (the Tracy and Hepburn performances are a must-see, so say no to the new version). It portrays interracial couples and the angst they caused in society at the time. A sweet old Irish Catholic priest argues with the father, who is faced with his own prejudice that “the matter here is that these two are in love.”
Barring all your own personal prejudice from coloring the issue, what we’ve really got with same-sex marriage is two people in a committed relationship who want the same rights to inheritance and guardianship and hospital visitation and respect, as any other two people.
In the recent mid-term elections, of eight states propagating bans on gay marriage, only Arizonans voted the measure down (even when amendments limited the rights of all unmarried couples to form contracts, whether gay or heterosexual).
When will Americans cease to support what is the historical norm and look into the heart of their own Constitution? At its heart is the framers’ penchant for freedom, for individual rights trumping the government’s right to dictate its morality or religious beliefs on any individual. Really, it is the heart of true Conservatism.
The most compelling argument against clinging to any religious determination about gay marriage comes from the author of the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson abhorred most the man that cleaved to historical norms. On the wall of his memorial in Washington, D.C., I once read these words and my breath was halted by the clarity of his vision. I know today Jefferson would applaud the clear vision of the ANC leaders in South Africa:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” (In from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1810)
(READ more from the New York Times)