April 17, 2009

"Laws Can Only Go So Far'

I've joined others in writing about the difference between laws that change behavior and the longer-lasting benefits of changing minds and hearts. This essay from The Advocate, written in the wake of Iowa's court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, is a timely reminder of that principle. Here's an excerpt:

I worry that by investing so much energy in winning court decisions and not working to win marriage equality through popularly elected legislatures, the gay rights movement is shunting aside the harder -- but no less important -- work of convincing the American people that there is nothing unhealthy, morally wrong, or threatening about homosexuality.

Social conservatives worry that court decisions like the ones in Massachusetts, California, and Iowa will lead to greater cultural acceptance of homosexuality, and in the end, they have a right to be anxious. As the Civil Rights Act of 1965 played a role in altering the way Americans think about race, the Iowa supreme court's decision will change the way Iowans view their fellow gay citizens, at least over time. But legal decisions written by a handful of lawyers form only a part of the struggle for the hearts and minds of the public. It wasn't lawyers and legislators who won the struggle for black equality, but rather the moral suasion, physical sacrifice, and humility of the everyday participants in the African-American civil rights movement that convinced Americans of the immorality and intolerability of the racial status quo.

Disputing the notion that marriage should remain heterosexuals-only because that's the way it's always been, the Iowa justices wrote that such reasoning can "allow discrimination to become acceptable as tradition and helps to explain how discrimination can exist for such a long time." The Iowa supreme court put a chink in the armor of the deeply ensconced antigay animus that bedevils so much of this country. Reveling in this victory, however, gays should not expect court decisions to be a substitute for the widespread social acceptance that we have sought for so long but have yet to achieve.

Victories in the courts and legislatures are very important, of course, but they can be short lasting without winning people's hearts. It is a slow but sure process.

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