The California state Legislature made history on Sept. 6 by setting California up to become the first state to legalize marriage between same-sex couples – before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) promptly announced that he would veto any such proposal. This is an unfortunate setback for gay rights and a bitter disappointment to California’s gay community, which now faces an even longer wait to receive the rights guaranteed to the rest of the U.S. population. Only the night before, gay and lesbian couples had hugged and cried in joy as the state Legislature sent the bill to the Governor’s desk. The Governor should stand up to special interests and sign this bill.
Even with Schwarzenegger’s veto, the state Legislature’s vote is still an important development in the struggle for same-sex marriage. Historically, California’s legislation often serves as a model for other states and even carries significant weight at the federal level. Massachusetts began marrying gay couples in 2004, but only by way of a state Supreme Court decision. California’s bill is a landmark because the state Legislature, acting as a representative body of the people, discounts those like President Bush who blame supposed “activist judges” for undermining the will of the people. The California referendum banning gay marriage was passed a mere five years ago, but that legislators would override it suggests that public support is indeed changing.
Schwarzenegger also subscribes to the notion that legalizing gay marriage would betray the best wishes of California’s electorate, and he stated a more appropriate venue to deal with gay marriage is through the state courts or voters. The idea that elected representatives are less in touch with popular sentiment than an appointed judge is weak at best. Gubernatorial vetoes are an important check on the state Legislative branch, but in this case, Schwarzenegger is not justified in blindly accusing the state Legislature of failing to represent voters. Previously, California’s same-sex couples suffered under a discriminatory majority, but now they only suffer under the tyranny of intolerant elements of the California Republican Party, the more believable reason behind Schwarzenegger’s veto threat.
The reality is that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should not have to rely upon public opinion for government to “grant” them their undeniable rights. Whether by judicial fiat or legislative action, same-sex couples must be recognized as being every bit as legitimate as their heterosexual counterparts and be given the same rights and protections. Civil unions cannot accomplish this. Our society adopted the principle of “separate but equal” in the past, and while the “separate” part worked well, the “equal” part is inherently lacking. Like other civil rights struggles, the forces of tolerance and equality are on the side of history and eventually, gay marriage will be as uncontroversial as interracial marriage. Schwarzenneger’s veto is but a temporary bump in the road.