Progress in Georgia |

Progress in Georgia

Jay Bookman

Last week’s vote by the state House of Representatives narrowly approving a constitutional ban on gay marriage is yet another heartening sign of progress toward equal rights for gay Georgians.

That might seem an odd interpretation of an event that the Christian Coalition and other anti-gay groups are celebrating as a landmark victory, but it’s true nonetheless. When you put the vote in context as the latest in a series of developments, when you draw an arrow through those past events and look forward to see where that arrow points, the direction it suggests is unmistakable, irreversible and encouraging.

Less than 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a 19th-century Georgia law that made it a felony to have gay sex in this state. In essence, to be gay in Georgia was to be criminal. In 1991, just 13 years ago, Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers withdrew a job offer to a bright young lesbian lawyer named Robin Shahar because she had dared to have a private ceremony of commitment to her partner. Allowing Shahar to work for his office would have been an endorsement of criminality, Bowers claimed.

Back then, there was no talk of imposing a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Georgia, because the concept was too far-fetched to take seriously. By 1996, though, the once-unthinkable idea had become thinkable enough that state legislators found it necessary to actually pass a law against it. And just six years ago, the state Supreme Court finally ruled that the law making a felon out of every gay Georgian was an unconstitutional infringement on privacy.

“We cannot think of any other activity that reasonable persons would rank as more private and more deserving of protection from governmental interference than consensual, private, adult sexual activity,” Chief Justice Robert Benham wrote in the 6-1 ruling. Just as important as that ruling was the public reaction: none. Although a few state legislators muttered about the decision, no serious effort was made to overturn it.

Now, of course, the prospect of gay marriage in Georgia seems to loom so large that a mere law against it is deemed insufficient protection, and a constitutional ban must be enacted. (The final decision on the constitutional amendment will be made by voters this fall, but passage seems certain.)

Again, that’s a sign of progress. We’re past the point of debating whether gay Georgians have a right to exist, whether they have the right to work in state government, whether they have the right to not only emerge from the closet but to hold elective office as gay people. A year from now, we may even have a gay member of the U.S. Congress elected from Georgia in the person of Cathy Woolard. In a relatively short time we have moved past all that, and are now debating on the floor of the Georgia House whether to allow gay people to marry legally.

The outcome of that debate was, of course, disappointing, but it is also temporary. While 59 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage, according to a recent poll, only 44 percent would oppose civil unions that grant a gay couple the same legal rights as a married straight couple.

According to a second poll, only 41 percent would support a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and more importantly for the future, support for an amendment among those under 30 falls to just 30 percent.

Change is coming and it can’t be stopped, just as the civil rights revolution could not be stopped. Some people find that comparison uncomfortable and try to claim it doesn’t apply. “You can’t change your skin color, but you can change your behavior,” according to Christian Coalition director Sadie Fields. “To try and piggyback what you do in the bedroom on a noble cause, meaning civil rights, is unconscionable. There’s no comparison.”

Yes, there is. Fields and others bring to mind that old legend about Canute, an 11th-century king of England who sat on his throne at the edge of the sea and commanded the tide not to rise.

The tide rose anyway.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Change is coming and it can’t be stopped.