October, 2009

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The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness

 

Thoughts about Gay Marriage

 

by Toni Seger

 

 

I live in Maine where we're experiencing a Citizen's Referendum on gay marriage; ads, bumper stickers, buttons and a lot of heated rhetoric. Signatures were being collected to over turn legislation legalizing gay marriage before the ink was dry. What is this fervor about, anyway? I think grass roots, citizen referendums can be a beautiful thing and all that the Founding Fathers envisioned about an engaged citizenry, but this one is little more than a complete embarrassment.

 

My biggest problem with the issue of gay marriage is that I don't see an issue. The Founding Fathers risked their lives for a passionately written Declaration of Independence that grants Americans the right to pursue happiness; an incredible vision that is uniquely esoteric among political statements. Children repeat the words in school rooms all the time, but how many think about their significance?

 

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness-

 

There's a lot of competition about patriotism and love of country these days. I love the Declaration of Independence and I'm not alone in that. Who wouldn't love a document where the pursuit of happiness is a right granted by God that cannot be denied?

 

I also don't know anyone who would argue there is anything more fundamental to happiness than marriage. I've been married 37 years and my marriage is my greatest comfort. I can't imagine being so arrogant as to think I have the right to tell someone else they're not allowed to pursue happiness through marriage the way I have. This is especially true in the United States where to deny someone happiness means denying a God given right won in the blood of this country's original patriots.

 

The beauty of this declaration and the constitution that followed is how we've been able to adapt them over a couple of centuries as the original vision of our revolution matured into a nation grappling with a changing world and a diverse citizenry. For example, we all agree to read 'Men' as standing for 'Mankind' now. When I was young, I had to argue for the larger, more inclusive statement because women weren't considered equal to men, but I don't think I have to argue about that nonsense anymore.

 

A hundred years after our great declaration, we came to grips with the contradiction of slavery and after a painful and bloody conflict, we banned it. In the early 20th century, it was the turn of women to win the right to vote and during the civil rights period of 1950's and 1960's, we recognized we had to do more than declare a minority's right to vote, we had to enforce that right or granting it was a hollow victory.

 

For those who think they can turn back the tide of gay marriage, understand you have history against you. Gay marriage is a natural outgrowth in the continual extension of recognizing rights originally expressed when we so passionately declared our independence. It's only natural for gays to seek legal marriage, at this time. They are simply taking their turn, as a group, to assert their God given right to pursue happiness. It wasn't that long ago deaf students quietly demanded and won the right to have a deaf university run by a deaf person. This quiet revolution was conducted with great dignity and when it succeeded, one could only marvel that such a self-evident right to self governance had ever been denied.

 

There are privileges that come with a legal marriage. What possible constitutional justification could there be to withhold privileges from gay couples that are taken for granted by straight couples? And, how ironic for a society to create barriers to marriage when half of all first marriages fail with an even higher percentage of failure for later marriages. If people are willing to make a commitment to marriage, they should be entitled to its benefits. From joint taxes to controlling end of life issues; when gays win the right to marry, they are winning the right to pursue happiness, in all its manifestations, with the partner of their choice.

 

Immediately upon hearing that Maine's Governor had signed a gay marriage statute, protesters began collecting signatures to overturn it. Wherever I drove, excited demonstrators waved frantically at my car with signs that said: “Marriage is only between a man and a woman.” Really? Who are these authorities? Where do they get their information?

 

In 1964, the Supreme Court found in Loving vs. Virginia, that people of mixed races should have the right to marry. Previous to this case, mixed marriages were still illegal in many states. For those whose happiness appeared to them with a different racial complexion, there was societal scorn in many places and downright danger in others. As a result, before the aptly titled Loving case, a lot of people were completely and irrevocably denied their greatest happiness. Like bringing an end to slavery, Loving corrected a terrible wrong.

 

I'm not in any doubt that denying gays the right to marry will eventually be recognized as unconstitutional. I've read the constitution many times and nowhere does it grant anyone the right to define happiness for anybody else. Nor does the constitution ever say that one group of us can define our own happiness at another group's expense. If that were true, what would stop a majority from banning marriage for people with red hair?Or anyone below a certain height? Or anyone with flat feet?

 

If these things sound especially arbitrary, it's because denying gays the right to pursue happiness through marriage is just as arbitrary. Demonstrators are free to wave signs at me that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman, but that doesn't mean there's a shred of truth in it. The constitution allows for free speech, and those who don't like the idea of gay marriage are free to voice their disagreements with the idea. But, no one has to right to impose their definition of happiness onto others. Otherwise, we'd still be British subjects because that's precisely what we rejected when we threw off the yoke of monarchy and demanded freedoms of speech, religion and assembly.

 

In a rear guard action, 24 states have passed legislation denying their own voters the right to bring gay marriage legislation to a vote in their states. Even if all 50 states passed such bizarre legislation, it would be no less opposed to everything the founders of this country fought and died for. Maybe I'm just being patriotic to raise this, but our original legislators were very idealistic about their revolution. They would have been appalled to know legislation was ever created for the sole purpose of barring any group from pursuing legitimate legislation.

 

As for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), this isn't the first time politicians have supported an action which they later regretted. Politicians are bean counters. They have to be or they won't get elected, so they tend to follow the loudest noise makers until they sense growing momentum for a new paradigm. Power is ephemeral and it shifts. With regard to gay marriage, momentum is clearly shifting towards legalization because denying a God given right to pursue happiness is indefensible. I'm old enough to remember job listings that read: 'Help Wanted Ė Male' and I can vividly remember being an object of ridicule just for questioning why I couldn't search them. Would anyone try to defend that practice now? It's illegal and it should be.

 

Looking for some fig leaf of support, opponents of gay marriage insist that my marriage and all other straight marriages, across this country, are somehow imperiled by gay marriage. Why we are in this danger is never explained, but I do not live in fear that gays will use their new status to attempt to ban straight marriages. I'm not concerned that gays will try to humiliate me if I hold hands with my husband in public or throw trash on my lawn for living openly as a heterosexual or subject me to any of the indignities they have experienced. Countless numbers of people get married every day, in this country, but most of us are only aware of a wedding when we are personally invited. This is how it should be and how, I expect, things will evolve for gays as well.

 

Co-owner of a media/communications firm; ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of "The Telefax Box", the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778 She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, "The Force of Poetry" is available at https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202