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Op-ed: Are We Missing the Civil Rights Angle When Discussing Gay Marriage?

By October 29, 2008No Comments

Are We Missing the Civil Rights Angle When Discussing Gay Marriage?

Yongho Kim, Civic Participation Coordinator, Korean Resource Center
(Translation of a Korea Daily column published on 10-14-08)

It’s great to see Korean Americans and the entire American society stirred up by the elections. Every day, dozens of voters call or visit the Korean Resource Center with questions on voter registration or other elections related issues. I almost feel sorry to witness this “expansion in our business” while the U.S. economy is in an unstable state. At the same time, it’s encouraging to note an increased interest from Korean American voters in the ballot initiatives and not just the presidential candidates – indicating a growth in the political maturity of our voters.

In particular, we have seen that many voters have been interested in Proposition 8, which will prohibit same-sex marriage. Well-known issues tend to attract rumors and misinformation; proposition 8 seems to be just that kind of issue. Some voters think that Prop. 8 is an “all-or-nothing” deal where if it were to pass, gays would somehow disappear, and if it failed to pass, everyone in California would become gay. In reality, Proposition 8 is not such a significant piece of legislation. Queer couples are already recognized in California law through domestic partnership, earning benefits comparable to married heterosexual couples.

The only caveat is that same-sex couples are being isolated in a separate realm called “domestic partnership,” even when in every aspect of their relationship and status is equal to that of “marriage.” This is a form of discrimination familiar in our community, called “separate but equal”

Opponents of same-sex marriage claim that acceptance of the queer community is symptomatic of societal moral corruption, but what is even more alarming is the pervasive discourse of hate in our society against them.

All it takes is to hear the comments of voters who have been calling Korean Resource Center in response to our “Vote No on Prop 8″ recommendation. One voter said “homosexuals are worse than animals; you shouldn’t give them any rights.” No matter how much you may disagree with someone, talking of a human being as subhuman is beyond our founding motto of living in harmony.

What worries me is that today’s arguments for discriminating against gays are frighteningly similar to 19th century justifications for racial discrimination and exploitation. Back then, European whites put black slaves and Asians in the same category as cattle; this mode of thinking was the dominant frame of the times when talking about race. Racists used moral arguments to justify their claims. Non-whites, they claimed, were unable to adopt European “culture,” did not wear clothes, displayed lavish behavior, and did not accept Christianity. Therefore, it could not be said that they were humans proper, and should instead be treated as animals. Later in the U.S. South, white supremacists resorted to violence “to prevent dirty and immoral blacks” from sitting in white-only lunch counters. Anti-miscegenation laws were passed that prohibited Asian immigrants from marrying whites.

How far away have we come from these brutal arguments when our community is saying that gays should not be treated as humans? Also, how different is this discrimination from the discrimination being imposed upon undocumented immigrants who help to build America’s economy?

As immigrants and people of color, we Korean Americans ought to look back and learn from our own community’s history of being discriminated against for not being able to speak English well, for the color of our skin, and for our immigration status. I hope that we will be able to open our hearts and start recognizing that basic human and civil rights are protections that every human being deserves.