Next week, the Supreme Court will hear the oral arguments on two legal challenges to laws that limit the government’s recognition of same-sex marriage. While there are various legal nuances to how both the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 cases might be decided, the Justices will actually be weighing a more fundamental question: Do gay people exist?
At the core of conservatives’ argument against marriage equality in both cases is the idea that gay people actually do not exist — only “homosexual behavior” does. In House Republicans’ final reply brief filed this week against DOMA, attorney Paul Clement argued that “sexual orientation is defined by a tendency to engage in a particular kind of conduct.” Proponents of Prop 8 similarly suggested that “sexual orientation is a complex and amorphous phenomenon that defies consistent and uniform definition.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops added in its amicus brief that homosexuality is a “voluntary action” just like polygamy. In other words, people are only really gay when they’re having gay sex — otherwise they’re not.
Herein lies greatest challenge for gay and lesbian civil rights: the fact that sexual orientation is an invisible identity. Unlike race or gender, it cannot so easily be superficially assessed. Thus, conservatives are counting on doubt and distrust, urging the Court to dismiss whatever gay people actually say about their lived experiences — discount every individual’s coming out story, ignore decades of gay culture and gay history, and disregard the scientific conclusions of the entire major medical community. In fact, opponents of equality regularly claim that “the gay agenda” is merely a conspiratorial quest to validate sinful behavior — as opposed to an effort to allow millions of people to participate fairly in society.
The Court will have the opportunity to weigh the question of whether gay men and lesbians exist in both a legal and practical sense. The practical case for recognizing gays is simple, yet compelling: gay people exist and more importantly, are already raising children in families. All of the conservatives’ arguments rely on claims about “responsible procreation” and what’s best for children, but not one of them takes into account the millions of children already growing up with same-sex parents. Besides the fact social science research supports same-sex parenting, it’s quite easy to see how those families would benefit from the securities and protections of marriage equality. The Court could simply accept opponents’ arguments about the values and purposes of marriage, but rather than apply them in conservatives’ imaginary gay-free universe, acknowledge that they should apply equally and fairly to gay couples as well.
The magic words to look for if the Supreme Court legally recognizes gay people is “heightened scrutiny,” which is how the Court determines that the government cannot target a specific group for unfair treatment without substantial justification. For example, classifications based on sex are subject to “intermediate scrutiny,” and classifications based on race are subject to the highest level, “strict scrutiny.” When the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Edie Windsor’s case against DOMA, it determined that intermediate scrutiny should apply. The Supreme Court, however, has not applied any level of heightened scrutiny for sexual orientation in past cases, even when ruling in favor of gay rights, such as Lawrence v. Texas (overturning sodomy laws) and Romer v. Evans (overturning a Colorado amendment banning LGBT nondiscrimiantion protections).
The Court has traditionally considered four criteria to determine whether laws that target a specific group should be subject to heightened scrutiny:
- Has the group been historically discriminated against or subjected to prejudice and hostility?
- Does the group possess an immutable (unchangeable) or highly visible trait?
- Does the group lack sufficient power to protect themselves from the political process?
- Can you group still contribute meaningfully to society despite the distinguishing characteristic?
Undoubtedly, the answer to all four questions when considering sexual orientation is “yes,” but that hasn’t stopped opponents from arguing otherwise. Notably, House Republicans have actually argued that gays and lesbians are politically powerful because they have “attained more legislative victories, political power, and popular favor in less time than virtually any other group in American history.” Of course, the rate of progress is not indicative of the quality of that progress, and the very need for multiple challenges to discriminatory laws like DOMA and Prop 8 disproves the claim on its face.
If any of the Justices determine that the answer to any of these questions is “no,” they would have to deny many facts in the process. They would have to discount the government’s Lavender Scare witch hunts of the 1950s, decades of police persecution and brutality, the ambivalence to research HIV when hundreds of gay men were dying of AIDS, and laws that have specifically targeted gays and lesbians for discrimination, like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” They would have to set aside the 38 states that have banned same-sex marriage, many by a majority vote in a constitutional referendum. And they’d have to impose their own understandings of identity upon the millions of people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and cannot change their sexual orientation.
The end result of these cases will determine the legality of same-sex marriage, but for the first time, the Court could actually acknowledge that gay people exist and thus deserve protection under the U.S. Constitution. On both a symbolic and legal level, the latter victory could be much more significant.