Prop 8 and DOMA: The "separate but equal" of gay rights law

Recently, one morning on my way to work, I heard something on the radio that really drove home to me what's wrong with North Carolina.

I subscribe to satellite radio and enjoy hopping around the offerings there, just to hear some new music or get a different point of view. For a few weeks, I've been listening to KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, the top rated pop station in that city. In between the ads for weight loss formulas and age defying creams, this old fart could catch up on the music the "kids" are into nowadays.

But that's not what really caught my attention. The morning show is hosted by reality show judge Ryan Seacrest and a crew of happy morning people and they sometimes do what they call the "roses's" feature. The idea is that someone who thinks their boyfriend is stepping out on them can call the show and tell their story. Then they call up the boyfriend and offer him a dozen roses he can send to someone and try to see if they send it to the person they've been dating or someone else.

This particular morning, it was a gay man calling in about his boyfriend. They talked him through his concerns and approached the whole situation with the same attitude and understanding they had for women in relationships with men, without batting an eye.

You wouldn't hear something like this on radio in NC. In fact, the morning djs are more apt to giggle and poke fun at gays and lesbians. Or, if you go to the public radio end of the dial, gay people don't exist outside of a major news story. (Does anyone remember the big shake-up at WFDD in the late 1990s when an award winning producer there produced a gay positive news report that upset the university trustees so much that he was moved out of his job and landed a gig at NPR?)

With the Supreme Court decisions today on Prop 8 and DOMA, I'm seeing much excitement and celebration in the gay community and among liberals and that celebration is deserved to great extent. However, it still leaves a legal mess for gay marriage around the US, with the Supreme Court allowing individual states to ban or recognize marriage as they see fit and limit the resulting benefits and privileges that might come at the state level along with it.

Scalia, just this past weekend, appeared in Asheville in front of the NC Bar Association, expressing his belief that judges shouldn't legislate morality - it should be up to states to decide gay marriage, abortion, and a host of other issues.

Despite all the party favors and confetti, Scalia's view on these issues carries the day.

As a gay man, I don't think "straight" people quite understand what a full legal recognition of gay marriage means, particularly for gays and lesbians who are single and have no interest in getting married.

It's not the fact that I can't marry a potential partner - it's the casual hate, disgust and stereotyping that comes when the State - or a popular vote - deems that how I'm born is "abnormal" and my personal religious convictions or beliefs aren't valid.

No, having gay marriage in a state doesn't magically rid the area of homophobia, but it takes away the legitimacy of extremists and their lies about gays and lesbians and shows the bigots for what they are - backward, fearful of anything they don't understand, and only capable of dealing with an imaginary Mayberry world where the outside can't intrude.

I recall going to a NAMES Project event with some guys and, afterwards, going into a restaurant in Winston, with some us wearing NAMES Project t-shirts or similar kinds of buttons. Despite sitting at the table a good half hour and watching others get served, none of the waiters or waitresses would go near us. We left and went somewhere else.

I remember another time applying for a position at a UNC system university - one that has a policy against gay and lesbian discrimination - and experiencing one member of the search committee that was so uncomfortable with some of my work for gay organizations listed on the resume that the head of the department wrote to me afterwards to apologize for his behavior.

During the height of the AIDS crisis in the 90s, in a little town in the middle of the state, one of the funeral homes was well known for telling families that state law required that anyone with AIDS be cremated and refused to handle burials for anyone with the disease. And, furthermore, if the dearly departed was known to be gay, the funeral home assumed he had AIDS, even if they died in an accident. This went on for years and families just seemed to accept it as the "way things are".

Yes, the defeat of DOMA and the states where gays can get married does a little more to marginalize the thinking of bigots. But the Supreme Court basically said that it's fine that these beliefs can still be the "mainstream" in some states.

The best analogy I can think of is the legal concept of "separate but equal" that governed our national policies about race from the turn of the last century until the Civil Rights era. With gays and lesbians, however, it's not about using a specific water fountain or attending a lower quality school on the other side of town. It's really a choice between staying in a state where you're regarded as a less of a person and less equal or moving thousands of miles to a place where you are. Or, for many in rural and even urban areas, continuing to stay firmly inside or with one foot in the door of the closet, hoping your employer doesn't figure out you're gay.

Somehow we're all shocked that Paula Deen could see getting Blacks to assume the role of slaves at a party or viewing them as "dumb" in the workplace as socially acceptable. Deen grew up in Georgia and the laws limiting the lives of Blacks in that state created a culture where those stereotypes and misconceptions are not only acceptable, but encouraged. After all, the state said it was so.

I think the conservatives on the Supreme Court understood the "real world" political consequences very well when they declined to strike down Prop 8 completely - like Jim Crow laws, it's a way for "morality" conservatives to suppress debate in areas of the country where they have a stronghold on politics. It's a way for conservatives to still use gays as a tool of fear in elections - "They're recruiting your children!" - and still promote gays being "sick" or "perverted" undesirables that have no place in a "proper" workplace or town.

In some areas of the country, gays and lesbians will be out, open and politically involved. In others, they'll still remain in the shadows or, if they can afford it, get the hell out. In North Carolina, the Triangle remains a little enclave for gay acceptance while the rest of the state remains a place where it's difficult - or even dangerous - to be "out".