No Place Like Home


Anytime you bemoan the state of political or social affairs in the United States, just remember, things could always be worse. A whole lot worse.

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Case in point: This week in San Francisco, a federal trial court proceeding commenced to determine the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. The results of the case, which will undoubtedly be appealed up to the United States Supreme Court, regardless of which side prevails, are likely to have a profound impact on what comprises lawful marriage not only in that state but across the nation. If Prop 8 is found to be discriminatory in precluding same-sex marriages, then it won’t matter how many groups can muster majorities in referenda to ban them – a judicially embraced civil right is not dependent on majority rule.

Certainly there are varying perspectives both within and outside Judaism about the issues surrounding Prop 8, and that’s to be expected. Marriage is a powerful biblical and historic institution, and it would be silly to think that relatively new thoughts and opinions would be honed to a single view in far less than a single generation. As with changes to any longstanding convention, the storm that precedes the calm of any altered status quo blows harshly indeed.

But the force of these changewinds, which many civilized nations are coping with in a variety of ways, pales in comparison to the draconian treatment of gays in some corners of the world. The most outrageous example is the legislation currently proposed in Uganda. Governments of the African continent, with few exceptions, have by and large been hostile to gay behavior and rights. The proposed Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, however, is beyond offensive–it is as malevolent and discriminatory toward a societal subgroup as can be.

In March 2009, several American far right-wing fundamentalist Christians traveled to Uganda to lecture about the supposed ills of homosexuality. Subjects such as how to “convert” gays to straight behavior, and how to prevent children from being “converted” to homosexuality, were discussed. And on the heels of that conference, a Ugandan legislator introduced this bill, notwithstanding that the country already has strict anti-homosexuality laws on its books.

And what a (disgusting) bill it is! Those adults with HIV who have consensual homosexual sex or who have previously been convicted under the bill are subject to the death penalty (though key government proponents have indicated a willingness to reduce that penalty to life in prison). Citizens who know about and don’t come forward to report instances of homosexual conduct can be prosecuted for aiding and abetting homosexuality and sentenced to up to three years in jail. It penalizes people and organizations that support LGBT rights. It provides extradition for Ugandans abroad who violate the act.

America may have difficulty figuring out where it’s going on same-sex marriage, but at least it does not seem headed in reverse toward the Dark Ages as does Uganda. If anything, our nation seems headed in an evolutionary direction. Even the makeup of the legal team challenging Prop 8 so suggests. Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and David Boies were opposing attorneys in the 2000 Bush v. Gore U.S. Supreme Court opinion that effectively decided the presidential election. Now they are joined together, the conservative and the liberal, to attempt to make new law to protect the rights of same-sex couples.

The results of this litigation are far from predictable. In fact, some gay rights advocates are worried that the litigation comes “too soon,” and that a defeat could set back the cause for same-sex couples by reinforcing the rights of states to define marriage as they see fit.

But the point here isn’t so much what happens in the lawsuit. It’s instead that America is trying as it often does, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes elegantly, to feel out a shift in cultural standards. Traditionalists buck the trend, progressives embrace it, and the dynamic tension reflected in the public and often acrimonious debate results in something that reflects an uncomfortable but usually workable peace.

The difference in how America and Uganda are dealing with these issues reminds us of how precious life is in the United States, and that we should never take it for granted.

The stress that emanates from political and social opponents in our country is by and large a healthy one, that causes us to look inward and examine who we are as a people. This constructive process of arriving at new social mores and conventions is painful, to be sure. But it serves the important purposes of showing us both where we’ve been and where we’re going. And that introspection is essential to the survival and prosperity of a great nation.