In a 2004 landslide vote, Oklahomans amended the state’s constitution to deny marriage equality to gay people.
The so-called “defense of marriage amendment” made it illegal for anyone to issue a marriage license to a same-gender couple here and made it clear the state would not recognize same-gender marriages performed in states that do allow them.
The amendment passed with 76 percent of the vote, but Oklahoma, along with 30 states with similar laws, remains on the wrong side of history when it comes to same-gender marriage.
Demographics and shifting cultural attitudes eventually will make this apparent to more people here. A recent judicial ruling in California might speed up that process.
On Aug. 4, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that California’s Proposition 8, a measure banning same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. Some legal experts predict the case will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. A ruling by the high court permitting same-gender marriage would have a sweeping effect across the country and end legalized discrimination against all couples that want to get married.
Some opposed to same-gender marriage accused Walker of judicial activism, and there were the typical laments about traditional values. But what does the ruling really mean for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community in Oklahoma? After all, this is a state that overwhelmingly supported a ban against same-gender marriage and is home to politicians such as state Rep. Sally Kern, who once made national headlines when she called homosexuality a larger threat to the nation than terrorism.
In a recent e-mail interview about the ruling, Scott J. Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance Foundation, an organization that supports LGBT issues, said same-gender marriage is a constitutional issue. “Segregating a portion of the population and denying that group equal ” not special, but equal ” rights is simply not in line with the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “We should have learned that lesson well in the 60s.”
Still, Hamilton is not convinced any judicial ruling will have an effect on “conventional thinking” here.
“Sixty-seven percent of Americans are in favor of same-gender marriage or civil unions that would afford gay couples all of the rights enjoyed by straight couples,” he said. “Clearly that percentage is far lower in Oklahoma. I don’t believe that this ruling, or any other, will have much of an impact on conventional thinking here.”
Hamilton also said that cultural attitudes are slower to change in Oklahoma.
“Societal attitudes typically change slowly,” he said. “In Oklahoma, the process is even slower. Consider interracial marriage: Oklahoma was among the very last states to enforce laws prohibiting couples of differing races from marrying. One has to wonder what would have happened were it not for the Supreme Court’s ruling that such laws are unconstitutional. How long would it have taken Oklahoma to change those laws? Would they still be enforced today?”
Fortunately, there’s good reason to hope the state’s LGBT community will one day enjoy equality.
Said Hamilton: “Will Oklahomans eventually embrace their LGBT neighbors by welcoming them into their churches, inviting them to barbecues, supporting them as educators and standing with them for equality? The fact is many Oklahomans are already doing just that. And that’s what it will take to ever affect true equality.”
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the Okie Funk blog.