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Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, said it best.
“Throughout our nation’s history, individuals and groups have fought for equal protection under the law,” she told a happy crowod of thousands gathered Wednesday at the UIC Forum to witness same-sex marriage signed into Illinois law. “The battles to define a person, a citizen, a voter, a marriage. As a history teacher, I firmly believe that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”
To her right at the podium were most of the top government leaders in Illinois — not only Gov. Pat Quinn, who would minutes later sign the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act on the desk that Abraham Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address, but Speaker Michael Madigan, his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and dozens of state legislators and constitutional officers.
You could view it as a political victory for gay people. Or as one step in the very long historical process to which Preckwinkle alluded.
Long ago, everyone stayed in place. To see the remnants of that system all you have to do is look at your last name — the Bakers and Farmers, Smiths and Taylors, were once the actual bakers and farmers, smiths and tailors, professions passed one generation to the next, locked-in futures given to loyal subjects who wouldn’t dream of trying to fill any other role than what his father or her mother did, the only thing God and tradition intended them to do.
But some chafed under that. They wanted to be free. To do something different, be someone different. And they forced change.
That is the entire story of modern life, the past 300 years at least, in one phrase: tradition yielding to individuals. Institutions and rituals, religions and kings, laws and conventions, slowly yielding to the relentless pressure of people yearning for liberty. Yearning to be their true selves, yearning to be something else than what fate had handed them. First the serfs objected to being serfs, and people from dominated countries tired of being dominated. Religions that weren’t the main religion, that were scorned and harried and murdered, asked why they too couldn’t worship in their desired way. Women, minorities, children, each one being recognized, after years of argument, protest, struggle, to be welcomed by some, held back by others who pointed at the past as the only true and acceptable map for the future.
And now gays and lesbians, today in Illinois. Quinn, an honorable man, a practicing Roman Catholic, following the strong tradition of that religion toward social justice, signed a law in Illinois so that, as Emanuel noted, “there is no straight, or gay marriage; from now on there is only marriage in Illinois.” In June, men can marry the men they love, and women can marry the women they love, just the way it has always been for heterosexual couples.
There is no going back. Women are never losing the vote. Children are not returning to work in thread factories. Same-sex marriage will, in a generation, be a chance to teach schoolchildren about the baffling blindness and irrational bigotry of their grandparents.
And as we move the only direction we can go, forward, we might pause from celebrating to ask ourselves: Why were these fellow citizens held down so long? For what reason? In the distant past, groups were held down because of limited resources, or the need for someone to do the scutwork for free. More recently, it was some basic human need to hate and fear somebody. To have an enemy, an other, someone you were always better than. It’s easy when you don’t know any better, an ignorance that was swept away by group protest and persistent effort on the individual level. Until, all at once it seemed, American began realizing that this oppressed group was really just our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our friends and parents. Gays and lesbians, in freeing themselves, freed the entire society, or at least gave it a chance to understand itself better.
So applaud along with gays and lesbians, for achieving a delicious victory that their forebears could hardly dream of. And applause for the straight community, for sharing — grudgingly, gradually, true, but sharing eventually — the precious gift of sweet daily life, of recognized married relations and solid family values, of acceptance and normality. Because it isn’t just homosexuals who benefit here, but all society, wriggling from the grasp of a powerful, destructive, long-term, hateful bias. Not fully, God knows. But a big step, another big step, in a journey of many steps, big and small.
This is is the moment in the wedding ceremony when the solemnities are done, the cleric closes the prayer book and smiles, the festivities in the next room beckon. But first, the groom, or I suppose now the bride, steps down hard on a glass — symbolizing both past sorrows and a break with those sorrows. Symoblizing a bright future. The glass breaks, the world shifts, slightly, and everybody cheers.