Friday, February 20, 2004

Can't Put The Genie Back In The Bottle

Last summer I read the first volume of the Library of America's Reporting Civil Rights, a collection of contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles about the Civil Rights movement from 1941-1963. I had never before read anything about that era that wasn't retrospective - that wasn't written by people who, at least to some extent, knew how things turned out. The events of the Civil Rights movement appear powerfully different without the benefit of historical perspective. At the time of the sit-ins at Southern lunch counters, ordinary people were quoted in newspaper articles estimating that it would take fifty years for white Southerners to become comfortable eating in restaurants with black people. Fifty years. They had no idea how quickly social and emotional changes would follow the forced legal changes. "You can't legislate how people feel," they argued, but by and large they were wrong.

I'm thinking about that today, of course, because of the massive, marvelous campaign of love and civil disobedience that began in San Francisco last week and looks as if it may spread to New Mexico and Chicago - if not further. Mayors in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Plattsburg, NY - which, incidentally, has a Republican mayor - have spoken out in favor of the civil disobedience in San Francisco. Rhode Island is considering a law allowing gay marriage. In Massachusetts, of course, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state constitution requires it. Things are happening very, very quickly.

Of course, some people are afraid that it's too much, too soon. Those fears accompany every liberation movement. Watching events unfold moment by moment, we can't see how they will turn out. Moving forward requires that we have courage, fortitude, and persistence - but still more has been required of others in our nation's history who fought for their basic civil rights. They didn't know how it would turn out either. They thought it might take fifty years for white Americans to be comfortable eating at a lunch counter with black Americans, and yet they sat themselves down anyway.

Looking at pictures of the newly married, I feel certain that I'm in the presence of something sacred. I recognize the awed, holy, joyous look on their faces, because I've seen that expression in my own wedding pictures. The state may eventually force annulments, but these people are married. They're not going to go away, cowed and quiet, back to their rightful place as it's defined by the state. You can't put the genie back in the bottle.

(Send a bouquet to a random same-sex couple in line at San Francisco City Hall: instructions here.)