I’ve had the mixed pleasure and pain of reading many marriage equality cases over the past several years. From a host of early cases dating back to the 1970s to the more recent judicial explosion of the past decade or so, it’s quite possible that I’ve read and analyzed every available legal argument for and against allowing same-sex couples the right to marry that opposite-sex couples — be they deadbeats, felons, the chronically divorced, or the anti-iconic Britney Spears — take for granted.
I and every other halfway-bright legal scholar can soak up these arguments, assess them, and opine exhaustively on their soundness. Particularly after reading Varnum v. Brien (the recent decision by the Iowa Supreme Court), I’m more convinced than ever that there really aren’t any sound arguments against basic equality in this context.
But this post isn’t about the law, but about facts.
If you want to know, from the jump, how a given case is going to come out, don’t bother getting a law degree. Instead, perform this simple exercise: Read what the court has to say about the lives of the plaintiff couples before it. Courts that decide in favor of marriage equality offer a detailed and sympathetic portrait of these couples. Courts that decide the case the other way simply omit any such description. And courts that go the civil union route are, perhaps not suprisingly, divided on how much detail they provide.1 Iowa follows the trend begun by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, opening the discussion with detail that invites the reader into the committed lives and loves of the couples. The sheer length of the following quote from Goodridge will give you a sense of my point:
“Gloria Bailey, sixty years old, and Linda Davies, fifty-five years old, had been in a committed relationship for thirty years; the plaintiffs Maureen Brodoff, forty-nine years old, and Ellen Wade, fifty-two years old, had been in a committed relationship for twenty years and lived with their twelve year old daughter; the plaintiffs Hillary Goodridge, forty-four years old, and Julie Goodridge, forty-three years old, had been in a committed relationship for thirteen years and lived with their five year old daughter; the plaintiffs Gary Chalmers, thirty-five years old, and Richard Linnell, thirty-seven years old, had been in a committed relationship for thirteen years and lived with their eight year old daughter and Richard’s mother; the plaintiffs Heidi Norton, thirty-six years old, and Gina Smith, thirty-six years old, had been in a committed relationship for eleven years and lived with their two sons, ages five years and one year; the plaintiffs Michael Horgan, forty-one years old, and Edward Balmelli, forty-one years old, had been in a committed relationship for seven years; and the plaintiffs David Wilson, fifty-seven years old, and Robert Compton, fifty-one years old, had been in a committed relationship for four years and had cared for David’s mother in their home after a serious illness until she died.
“The plaintiffs include business executives, lawyers, an investment banker, educators, therapists, and a computer engineer. Many are active in church, community, and school groups.”
Cases rejecting the claims, though, tend to avoid these portraits, which are at once sympathetic and, well, a little boring. If these couples’ lives are quotidian, they become less scary. But scary is good if you’re trying to hold back the tide of equality. Better not to know anything about committed same-gender couples; denying rights to abstractions is much easier.
History has taught many disturbing lessons about what can happen to people whose humanity is stripped away. But it’s not going to work this time.