Friday, September 2, 2005

Obits and Labels

If you romp as I do every day through The San Francisco Chronicle, you pass the obituary page to get to the editorial page. This morning the smiling face of a young guy jumped out at me. This is San Francisco and when young people die my first thought is AIDS. I quickly scanned down to "Jimmy is survived by his domestic partner of seven years…" and thought, sadly, yes, one more. Just like the reading researchers say, reading is not about pouring information into an empty vessel; one casts one’s eyes across text to confirm or deny information previously structured within the brain.

Except that instead of moving on after the quick scan I decided to stay with this obit and noticed something I had at first missed. "Jimmy passed away suddenly," it begins, "without illness into the hands of God on Aug. 18th, 2005."

Whoever wrote the obituary curiously chose not to tell us why Jimmy died. It makes me wonder whether he lied about the illness and the reference to "the hands of God" makes me wonder if this is an AIDS denial. It still goes on, I am well aware, after all these years, especially among certain religious groups. I can’t relate this to the culture wars because I have too little information. I didn’t know this smiling face, but because it caught my attention the knowledge of his death saddens me, and I find myself wondering what it must mean to the people who loved him.

Jimmy Oh was Korean-American. His parents live in Oregon, his sister lives in Oakland. He grew up in Europe and his partner’s name is given as well, and if you google the partner you see he is well-connected. (I've changed the names since there is no point in identifying them.)

But Yang Ho "Jimmy" Oh, born in Seoul on my father’s 59th birthday (to drive home how recently that was), died in his 32nd year and that’s too soon by far.

I’m not nuts about obituaries, but this one captured my attention because only seconds before hitting upon it on page B4 I had read on page A9 about how the people trying to take away domestic partnership rights in California are still hard at work. You may know the story. There is an initiative that would amend the California state Constitution not only to ban same-sex marriage, but to take away the whole concept of domestic partnerships as well.

The fight is on between these people and State Attorney General Bill Lockyer over how the measure should be labeled. Lockyer has labeled it "Marriage. Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights" and attached a description in 100 words or so that explains that it will eliminate the right of gay couples (or any couples who are not married) to form a partnership which will enable them to share the same rights of community property and health care as married people.

The people sponsoring the bill have the name "Liberty Counsel" and they are represented by their attorney Mary McAlister. Liberty Counsel. Note the peculiarly American construct. Form an organization to take away people’s right to form partnerships because of a literal reading of scripture and label it "Liberty." Reminds me of the use of "democratic" in the names of the various Democratic Republics of the now diminishing communist world.

Lockyer wanted Californians to understand what a vote to kill domestic partnerships will mean, so he decided to tell them. Liberty Counsel’s lawyer is fighting to kill the title "Elimination of Domestic Partnership Rights," which they declare "misrepresents the measure," even though that is absolutely and unequivocally what the bill will do, and change it to something that will "more accurately" represent what the bill will do – "protect marriage rights."

If voters took the time to understand what they were voting for it would not be necessary to fight this battle over labels. But they don’t. And if you ask the average Joe and Lucy whether they want to "protect marriage rights" – especially if you add "because they are under attack" – Joe and Lucy will no doubt do the right thing and say, "You betcha." But if they vote this way, the long term story will not be the label change from "Eliminate Domestic Partnership Rights" to "Protecting Marriage Rights." It will be the label change "domestic partner" to "insulter of the institution of marriage."

The California Senate has just passed a same-sex marriage bill. If it passes the House, it will move California ahead of Vermont, and even Massachusetts, toward recognition of gay marriages. The fight is bitter and sad. Bitter because of such subterfuge as the Liberty Counsel is trying to pull off. And their desire not only to keep gays from being "married," but to keep them from forming secure civil relationships at all. Sad because so many people are worried gays are pushing culture change too fast and the result is as likely to be a backlash as it is to be a legal victory. Nothing hurts like thwarted expectations and it’s sad how many people I hear warning we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

State Senator Hollingsworth, a Republican from Riverside County, warns us we need to base our state laws on God’s will. "Forward me the e-mail you got from God on this and I’ll vote your way" would be my response to such horseshit, but State Senator Alarcon, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, wouldn’t dare talk like this even if he agrees with me. This is America and the national language is now god-talk. "The last time I checked," said Alarcon in response," a higher power created all of us. In the eyes of God, they are all human beings, all equal to him…Why are they not equal to us?" You see the success the conservatives have achieved in being able to determine the level and style of discourse on the subject.

By 1965, progressives had largely succeeded in knocking down most barriers to interracial marriage, but conservatives could take heart that in some places in the U.S. interracial marriage was still illegal. (The ban was removed only in 1967.) Forty years later the question is how many California conservatives are ready to join their liberal colleagues in casting gay marriages in the light in which they’re seen in Canada and Spain and much of the rest of Europe. And, if they’re not so inclined, whether the voters will take their cue from a negative vote and take away domestic partnerships as well.

I know I’m risking heartbreak. But I’m not listening to people who tell me not to get my hopes up.

September 2, 2005

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