Martin Luther King Jr. has communicated to millions in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Those who hear “Wait!” are promised that, given sufficient time, justice will be done, wrongs will be corrected, and equality will abound to everyone everywhere just the same. Yet, present dire circumstances are oft-neglected in the process of “Wait!” It may be said that the call to patience in the political sphere is a tool by the ruling majority to pacify the minority who are demoralized by inequality. Though some will call advocates for immediate change rebels or rabble-rousers who see no need for civilized political processes, these “voices that cry in wilderness” are seeking real solutions to real injustices not someday but today. To retard the march of justice, for whatever political advantage, is to halt it in its tracks. However, to throw an issue down the gauntlet without calculation, technique, and well-timed maneuvering may be impractical and ineffective in attaining ultimate ends. Truly, the tension between the immediacy of justice-doing on the one hand and the patience required for optimum political stratagem on the other is perennial.
Given that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” waiting is a ruse by those reluctant to advance equality. Justice cannot too speedily be delivered. Yet, the demands cannot be sloppily presented, and the timing must be finessed. How, then, do we reconcile the need to be skillful in timing and persuasion in order to achieve equality with the immediacy of the need for equality?
On Wednesday we met with a legislator who defended his vote in the negative for Assemblyman O’Donnell’s marriage equality bill citing political inopportunity as his justification. Although he personally supports marriage equality, he did not vote for the legislation because he saw his vote as inconsequential, and he was biding his time to make such a controversial stand, in a district where 80% oppose, when it would have the greatest impact. The members of the Right to Marry Campaign, South Bus, expressed the need for immediate change in NY on the issue, indicating in no uncertain terms that the needs of same-gender families require an instantaneous invitation to the institution of marriage. The American Pediatrics Society has come out publicly in support of marriage equality, asserting that children need the protections and benefits of civil marriage. These families exist, and need these federal and state entitlements immediately; waiting for a politically opportune time to protect them is absurd. The legislator maintained that he supports bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender (BGLT) rights (including marriage rights), yet believes that he is in no position to “come out” with this position at the present time. However, he declared, that at some future time the climate will be ripe for his decision to favor marriage equality, and at that time he will make good on his promise.
How can we, who have waited for so many years to have the equal treatment under the law that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees, sit in the office of an ally of marriage equality and accept its deferment? Is this truly an ally of marriage equality, or someone who has invented a creative argument to appease the dissenting and wronged minority into silence? Granted, how the case is made is important, but the timing is never better to extend rights to a suspect classification of people than the present. Therefore, when speaking in terms of redressing the injustice perpetuated on a minority, in this case extending marriage to include all couples who have been so excluded, political strategy can never be used as an excuse for failing to vote according to what is known is right.
When speaking about direct-action campaigns against discrimination, Dr. King asserts that no decision to advance civil rights is “well timed.” How easy it is for those who have all of the joys of marriage to beseech the minority to wait with patience for the prime moment when, usually when it is convenient for the lawmaker and the opportunity costs are at their lowest, to vote for justice to prevail. The BGLT community must rise up together, with eloquence, intelligence, grace, and earnestness and immediately demand nothing less than civil marriage. This is a matter of conscience and morality. The legislative branch of the government did not wait for the majority of Americans to affirm racial equality when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – this decision was an ethical imperative. Likewise, the legislative branch of NY must not balk at their duty to vote in favor of marriage equality. We shall not wait for a “more convenient season.” We consider this assemblyman’s “Lukewarm acceptance… [as] much more bewildering than outright rejection,” (in Dr. King’s words) and ask him to stand with resolute moral posture for marriage equality. Time can never be used as “an ally of the forces of social stagnation,” rather, “…time is always ripe to do right.” May the lawmakers of New York make haste to do right and vote for marriage equality.