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Defiance in Dixie

BY ON March 9, 2015

I wanted to spare readers yet another post on gay marriage, perhaps the most exhausted of topics written by and about LGBT communities. I figure we will all get our fill about the issue in the next few months as the U.S. Supreme Court is finally set to hear oral arguments on April 28th. I’m also fully aware about how problematic it is to focus on the issue of gay marriage (see Dan Royles excellent discussion about queer politics and Ferguson) That said, with all the mess same-sex marriage has caused in Alabama over the last few weeks, I couldn’t resist.

No, this won’t be a post where I try to convince you that gay marriage should be legalized. There are far too many eloquent writers who’ve already done that, and more importantly, far too many anti-gay marriage folk who’ve made it easier for those writers. (I’m looking at you, Dr. Ben Carson, who said this week that prison makes you gay.)

I wanted to focus on Alabama, which was ordered to begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples early last month following a ruling by a Federal District court judge. Unlike most states in similar situations that complied with federal rulings, Alabama’s deeply religious Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered probate judges to not grant marriage licenses. Probate judges split on the matter; some stood by their Chief Justice while others bowed to federal authority. All this became moot just a few days ago, however, after the Alabama Supreme Court (headed by Chief Justice Moore) halted all same-sex marriages in the state. Despite a tide of same-sex marriage acceptance nationwide, Moore and Alabama are prepared to take a stand.

It might be expected that same-sex marriage wasn’t going to go as smoothly in the state as it had in other parts of the country. After all, only 1 in 5 Alabamians approve of same-sex marriage (the state ranks 49th in the country. Your guess for #50 is probably correct). But the fight for marriage rights in Alabama was surprisingly civil. Despite some rare testy exchanges with protesters outside of county courthouses, news footage documented long waits for couples who waited to hear if their local probate judge would offer them a marriage application. Some were sustained, they said, by the kindness of strangers who brought them fast food during their day-long waits at the county offices, unwilling to miss being present in case any news trickled in. When Etowah County, far from the urban centers of Montgomery or Birmingham, opened their marriage windows, a lesbian couple remarked that the clerks were professional and courteous and “on their game.”

As of now, though, those windows remain closed to same-sex couples. The most frustrating thing about this whole fiasco is Chief Justice Moore himself. For over a generation now, the Deep South has been fighting the legacy of Jim Crow and segregation. Alabama and Mississippi (your guess as to #50) were the heart of white southern resistance during the black freedom struggle, and since then, outsiders have viewed them as the true racists of American society. Places like Alabama and Mississippi became what historian Joseph Crespino call “metaphor states,” sites the nation as a whole can point to as the genuine holders of racial and discriminatory animus, as if the rest of the nation is innocent of gross civil rights issues. For example, why does New York City, a beacon of gay tolerance we’re told, refuse to address rising LGBT homelessness. In terms of homophobia, the south is by no means exceptional.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean Alabama is off the hook. Alabama deserves our national anger. The legacy of lynching, voting disenfranchisement, peonage, slavery, and unethical medical experiments, to name just a few, is still very much real.

But Chief Justice Moore’s actions is so vividly reminiscent of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s famous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to protest desegregation in 1963. What’s mind boggling is that Moore is no dummy; he attended the U.S Military Academy and the prestigious, highly ranked law school at the University of Alabama. He’s fully aware of his home state’s tarnished racial legacy and yet still felt compelled to defy federal rulings on a monumental civil rights issue, which he opposed largely on religious grounds.

Now, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the conflation of the black civil rights movement and the LGBT rights movement (the “new civil rights movement,” as some call themselves). Yet, Moore’s actions more easily merge the movements in the minds of the public. By doing so, it’s another anchor to pull down Alabama’s chances of ever really not being one of the focal points of national disgrace.

Maybe Alabama wasn’t going to be able to shed it’s racist label anytime soon, but Chief Justice Moore, a man overwhelming supported by his constituents, single handedly contributed to the state’s intolerant image. Like Wallace, I doubt history will be kind to him. Hopefully though, future historians will even care more about the clerks who opened their windows, the eager couples in line, and the vibrant queer communities of the South than they do about a cowardly Chief Justice.


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