The Fearsome Power of Family Equality

Marriage rights are an important step, but the lopsided power dynamics that support anti-gay bigotry go much deeper.
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I've been traveling today and didn't get the news handed down from the Supremes until relatively late. I haven't read any of my fellow writers yet, but I did want to take a moment to say how important this moment is in the war against inequality. I was tempted to say "social inequality," but in America, there simply is no real way to separate the social, the political, and the economic. When the larger country decided to stand aside as South Carolina went about the business of disenfranchising half its citizenry, the weapon was political, but the implications were economic and social. With no access to the franchise, black people lacked the means to protect their wealth. The poverty of wealth which befell them then reinforced their status as social pariahs, and their status as social pariahs reified the racist justifications for their disenfranchisement and the inglorious cycle was complete.

It must never be forgotten that in America, the right to marry is the right to protect one's family. Certainly the pictures of same-sex couples embracing and hugging warm the heart and are a powerful weapon in country that prides itself on fairness. But, if I may be so bold as to heterosplain, there is a danger here cousin to the one we see in people who think segregation was a matter of Colored Only water fountains. I think the case at the center of the DOMA suit, explained here by The New York Times, is telling:

The case on the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, concerned two New York City women, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, who married in 2007 in Canada. Ms. Spyer died in 2009, and Ms. Windsor inherited her property. The 1996 law did not allow the Internal Revenue Service to treat Ms. Windsor as a surviving spouse, and she faced a tax bill of about $360,000 that a spouse in an opposite-sex marriage would not have had to pay. Ms. Windsor sued, and last year the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, struck down the 1996 law.

The state repossessing a couple's wealth because it finds them icky is wholly unjust. It recalls a particularly horrible aspect of slavery -- the assault on the families of people deemed to be outside the law. There is a particular war here, which better people than me can speak to. But power is at the core of the long war which began sometime in the mid-17th century with the passage of the first slave codes. The prohibitions against same-sex marriage are not simply about withholding the right to be pretty in a dress or dashing in a tux (though I would deny no one their day). It is about ensuring that only certain kinds of people, and certain kinds of families, are able to amass power, and, with that power, influence over the direction of our society.

It is wrong to strip people of wealth because you are bigot. It is wrong to strip people of the right to name their caretakers because you are afraid. It is wrong to make war on people because you can not get over yourself. And though today we may say that we have advanced, through much of this country, the wrong continues unabated.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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