The Price of Prejudice

Another day, another damned defeat.

It wasn't much of a surprise. Despite heroic efforts by gay-rights activists, yesterday North Carolinians amended their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Amendment One passed by an overwhelming 22-percent margin. Gay marriage is already illegal in North Carolina by statute, but amending the constitution ensures that state courts can't overturn the law.

(Small consolation prize: Obama says he’s “disappointed” that voters in North Carolina didn’t “evolve” any faster than he has. [UPDATE]: The president declared his support for marriage equality today.)

For supporters of gay rights, it's another setback in a war that, overall, seems to be going the right way. But it's disappointing nonetheless, and there are a few things that are both telling and especially harmful about the gay-marriage ban in North Carolina.

Opponents of marriage equality in the state weren't just satisfied with stopping gay people from getting married. Amendment One also bans the state or any of its cities from recognizing any "domestic legal union" other than one between a man and woman. In other words: no civil unions, no domestic partnerships, no health benefits for your same-sex partner (or their children) if you're a state employee, and no hospital-visitation rights. Some opponents of marriage equality like to pretend that they're not anti-gay; they simply want to preserve the “traditional definition of marriage.” But the broad sweep of the amendment shows that the motivation extends far beyond "protecting marriage." The law rolls back existing protections for gay people and their families in a way that can only be interpreted as mean-spirited and discriminatory.

To know as much, all you'd have to do is look at North Carolina pastor Ron Baity, the leader of pro-Amendment One group Return America. Day before last, he stressed to his congregation that homosexuality was "perverted" and said we should persecute gay people the way we did 300 years ago. Ask and ye shall receive.

North Carolina, which houses the headquarters of Bank of America and Wachovia, is supposed to be the most progressive of the former Confederate states—the social conservatism of its rural areas tempered by the pro-business interests of its major corporations and the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill higher-ed triangle. Attempts to put a constitutional amendment to voters, which requires the approval of the legislature, had failed until Republicans retook control in the 2010 midterm elections.

But they're not the only ones to blame. As opposed to Starbucks and Microsoft in Washington state, North Carolina’s largest employers remained neutral on the state’s assault on gay rights. While a few representatives from these companies (speaking for themselves, of course) pointed out that the law would hurt recruitment efforts, the companies themselves failed to see Amendment One as a threat. Cathy Bessant, technology chief at Bank of America, said passing Amendment One would "signal that we're a backward-looking economy." My banker friends—and my former financier husband—talk about how they and their colleagues regularly passed up jobs at Bank of America and Wachovia because they were located in the South. I can't imagine the passage of Amendment One will do anything but hurt businesses trying to attract members of the professional class, who tend to be younger, socially liberal, and value residing in tolerant, cosmopolitan places.

Some opponents of the law have focused on the fact that the law was so poorly written that it threatens not just to disenfranchise gay people, but unmarried straight couples as well. Here's the thing about discrimination: It inevitably overshoots its target. As emerging research on its psychosocial effect shows, discrimination hurts those doing the oppressing, too. Anti-gay prejudice robs communities of talent. It engenders fear and distrust between different groups of people—in this case, between communities of faith and gay people, racial groups (an explicit aim of same-sex marriage opponents), and rural and urban residents. It walls off enriching experiences with people who are not like you. Whether you're gay or straight, it perverts the notion of citizenship as contingent on sexual orientation.

Some opponents of the law have suggested that voters were confused about what Amendment One would accomplish and point out that a majority of voters in the state favor some recognition for same-sex couples, though not marriage. But this just seems like a way to avoid acknowledging the fact that gay-rights supporters were soundly defeated yesterday. It's hard for me to see it as anything other than a disaster, and I think sometimes you have to look prejudice in the face.

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