Drolet: With gay marriage legal, follow the golden rule

Leon Drolet

The Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling signifies a shift in the long battle between those supporting a strong social stigma against same sex intimacy and those seeking to end that stigma.

For hundreds of years, those who disapproved of homosexuality used the tool of government to advance their goal. But the tide has turned and an increasing majority now support ending such government-imposed discrimination. Assuming that shift continues, those advocating equality for gay and lesbian people will find themselves holding the very weapon that was used against them: the force of government laws. Whether and how they use that weapon will shape the nature of our society for the better or the worse.

When Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to the Virginia legislature in 1779 to impose a maximum penalty of castration for those convicted of same-sex intimacy, he intended it as a liberalization of the existing maximum penalty of death.

Jefferson’s bill was defeated, and the death sentence for gay citizens remained in effect until South Carolina became the last state to replace that punishment with imprisonment in 1869. Imprisoning gay people was legal until 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court forbade such laws. Other government actions used against gay Americans occurred during the 1950s, when the government conducted a witch hunt and fired hundreds of gay federal employees. Legislators called them “perverts” and equated them with communists as enemies of the state.

Modern anti-gay activists embraced the power of government as a weapon against gay citizens when they forced President Bill Clinton to relent on his early efforts to allow gay soldiers to serve their country. Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise wasn’t repealed until 2010. Meanwhile, social conservatives who felt threatened by evolving public acceptance of gay equality embraced a new tactic: amend state constitutions to ensure that heterosexual relationships would be legally superior to homosexual relationships.

Rather suddenly, anti-gay crusaders now find themselves decidedly on the defensive as legal rulings against marriage bans coincide with rapidly growing cultural acceptance of gay equality. Fewer and fewer Americans are willing to allow their gay family members, friends, co-workers and loved ones be treated as second-class citizens. This is a great development for the principle of liberty and equality in our nation, but it comes with a new challenge: will the “winners” of this cultural battle now seek to punish the “losers” using the same weapon of government coercion that was wielded against them?

We have already seen this weapon being used in new hands in the form of laws mandating that opponents of gay equality be forced to bake cakes, serve pizzas or otherwise provide services to gay weddings. On college campuses, some gay equality opponents are subject to speech codes banning them from expressing their views. Controversial laws are being proposed that provide penalties to private organizations that refuse to accept gay equality. Other laws would do the exact opposite and protect such organizations from penalties.

The merits of such laws will be hotly debated. But the civility of our society may now depend on the willingness of the winners to lay down their arms by not engaging in the use of government force against those that disagree with them. After so many years of enduring the brunt of vicious attacks by anti-gay activists, this may seem like a lot to ask. “An eye for an eye” may be the justification for advocating laws that penalize those with anti-gay views. Such an approach is wrong and shortsighted. The war to end discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens wasn’t won with laws, it was won with love.

This is a pivotal moment. The end of hundreds of years of brutality and discrimination against gay and lesbian people is within sight. A bright future is possible where people of differing sexual orientations can live as equals and friends. That future can be achieved most quickly if gay equality advocates resist the temptation to use laws and coercion against those who disagree with them. In other words, treat opponents exactly the opposite of how gay and lesbian citizens were treated for hundreds of years: by treating them as you, yourself, would like to be treated. By being loving and compassionate.

By setting an example of tolerance and civility. It is this weapon, the golden rule, that brought down government discrimination. And it can further advance a more civil and just society.

Leon Drolet is chairman of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance.