On June 26, we saw a fundamental change in the culture of South Carolina. We saw the political landscape altered and the lives of thousands of South Carolinians radically transformed.
I am not talking about the death of Strom Thurmond, though his passing also suggests something of the cultural and political evolution of this state.
On June 26, the day Thurmond died, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that criminalize anal and oral sex, between straight or gay couples. In doing so, the court also affirmed the fundamental dignity of gay and lesbian people. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his decision, "The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster released a statement that day admitting our sodomy law is no longer enforceable, but defending it to the end.
"Texas, just like South Carolina," McMaster wrote, "has the fundamental right and authority as a sovereign state to enact laws prohibiting behavior deemed inappropriate and detrimental to the state."
The nasty jab about gays and lesbians being "detrimental to the state" clearly shows that South Carolina politicians, no matter what the Supreme Court says, will continue to demean the lives of their gay and lesbian constituents and fellow citizens.
But "sovereign state"? Like a return of the repressed, the phrase echoes a past some of us would like to forget.
When Thurmond ran for president in 1948, he fought for "the preservation of the prerogatives of the people of a sovereign state." What were the rights of a "sovereign state"? According to Thurmond, the right "to deal exclusively with domestic problems," which included "voting, qualifications for voting, segregation, law enforcement and private employment."
A defense of segregation, Jim Crow voting laws, and employment discrimination, as this litany makes clear, "states' rights" was the rhetoric used by Southern politicians who resisted federal attempts to make blacks full and equal citizens.
The echo rang too true in the gay community.
As Bert Easter, my partner and president of the S.C. Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement said to the press last week, "McMaster thinks this decision should be left to the states, not the federal courts." He added, "Can you imagine where civil rights would be if that kind of thinking had prevailed"?
That kind of thinking didn't prevail then, and it didn't prevail last week, either.
Most straight folks in this state probably didn't realize the impact of the decision, or the fact that their own sex lives could be criminalized as well. (Have those South Carolina Republicans who invoke and defend the sodomy law never themselves enjoyed oral sex?)
For gays and lesbians, it was probably one of the most important days of our lives. We celebrated liberation from a law that made us criminals and second-class citizens because of who we are and how we love.
I don't remember what happened on June 30, 1986, the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that states could criminalize gay sex and that gays and lesbians had no fundamental right of privacy. At that time, I was just making my own very hesitant steps out of the closet.
I was 22 years old that summer, working on the family farm and about to go to graduate school in Texas, home of George W. Bush, the state that defended sodomy laws all the way to the Supreme Court. My world was changing, but I didn't realize the larger contexts that would, in the words of Justice Kennedy, "control [my] destiny."
That date and that decision passed me by. Not this time.
I will remember anxiously checking the CNN web site.
I will remember sitting at my desk, weeping, as the magnitude of the decision hit me.
I will remember the celebration at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in downtown Columbia. One lone religious protester walked a sidewalk outside, while almost 100 people stopped by to celebrate - gays and lesbians, straight friends, the mother of a gay son, college students and local political activists who realized the importance of that day.
A fellow activist in Greenville, SC, says only a dozen folks showed up for the well-publicized rally there. It shows, she says, how disappointingly closeted the the upper part of the state remains. A friend in Myrtle Beach on the coast says no one showed up for the event planned there.
Someday, maybe a lot of gay men and lesbians around this state will wonder what they were doing the day their lives were changed, the day they became full and equal citizens of a state that fought to deny us that right.
By the time I made it to bed, my partner was already asleep, the cat curled up beside him. I will remember walking into the bedroom I share with my partner - no longer the scene of a crime, no longer a concern of the state, no longer a felon.
Despite family rejection, church disapprobation and social disapproval, I will remember June 26 as the day that South Carolina was forced to recognize my full citizenship - the day the federal government recognized my fundamental human dignity.
Ed Madden (EdMaddenSC@aol.com)
is a writer, educator, activist and associate professor of English and women's studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He also serves on the board of the SC Gay and Lesbian Community Center (www.scglpm.org).