I will confess to a having a mild obsession for the American Declaration of Independence, It is a magnificently written document that expresses in glorious Jeffersonian prose, the hopes, and dreams of the people living in those thirteen British colonies in 1776.
Not surprising, the Fourth of July, has always been one my favorite holidays. I love all the Americana that goes with it. When I lived in Chicago, I would practically force my friends to come with me and picnic in Grant Park where we would sit on the grass eating watermelon, waving sparklers and listening to the Chicago Symphony play “Stars and Stripes Forever” as the fireworks boomed over our heads.
It was always at that moment, seeing the thousands of people around me cheering and waving flags, I’d feel so fortunate to have been born an American. A nation that, despite all its flaws and foibles , has nevertheless, never stopped striving to be that place Katherine Lee Bates called “American the Beautiful”.
The experience of celebrating American independence from outside the United States is not a new one for me. This will be the tenth July 4th holiday in my life, spent as an “ex pat” . Six of those were spent in Germany, one in South Korea and this next Monday , will be my third here in the UK. Friends and co-workers here, were surprised to learn I was not going to take the day off next Monday. I had thought about it, but when you get right down to it, Monday, July 4th, is just another workday here. So when in Rome... or in this case, London...
Yet being honest, I will admit there are other reasons I find myself feeling somewhat ambivalent about the Fourth of July this year, and it (as always) goes back to the document that started it all. That Declaration of Independence. Here is what the ubiquitous internet oracle Wikipedia has to say about the declaration:
Having served its original purpose in announcing independence, the text of the Declaration was initially ignored after the American Revolution. Its stature grew over the years, particularly the second sentence, a sweeping statement of human rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
I have always loved those words, because at their core, they proclaim why American was designed to be different. What would set us apart from the other nations of the world. No feudal systems of hereditary privilege for us, thank you very much. You keep your Kings, and Dukes and Earls and Viscounts and whatnot.
For us, America would be a place where even a skinny mixed race kid from Hawaii, with a name like Barack Hussein Obama can grow up to be President. (Hey Europe! Do ya’ like apples? Well, how about them apples!)
The problem is, as a nation we have an unfortunate habit of not always living up to our Jeffersonian prose. Especially when it comes to that whole, all men are created equal, bit. It took us over 140 years after the abolition of slavery to elect a President who wasn't white.
As recently as 40 yrs ago, many people argued that to apply that idea of equality throughout the country was a violation of "States Rights". Many in Southern States said it was State Law that should decide who could work where, who could go to what school, how some people could vote, and who could marry who. All based on the color of a person's skin.
In the 1963, President Kennedy took the issue head on.
The lesson of the great civil rights struggle of the 20th Century was that the Federal Government has a role to protect the rights of all Americans from bigotry and discrimination cloaked in the camouflage of "States Rights". Jefferson's exhortation of unalienable Rights, wasn't just for some people living in some parts of the United States. It was for everyone. Well at least it is supposed to be. In 2011 it turns out those rights are for... almost everyone.
The argument of states rights is back. In the 21rst Century it is not race, but rather the idea that Same Sex couples might deserve the same BASIC civil rights and protections as everyone else, that is causing more debate than the proposal to declare independence from Great Britain provoked back in 1776.
So the United States continues to cling to a law that prevents any recognition of Same Sex couples by the Federal Government. Of course I am talking about the ridiculously mis-named "Defense of Marriage Act." (DOMA) It provides the legal excuse for the United States to discriminate against me and my spouse, and over 40,000 bi-national same sex couples just like us.
So thanks to DOMA, the Federal Government has a problem with my wanting to enjoy the same rights as any other American. It is the fact that the person I am legally married to here in the United Kingdom, has the audacity to be the same gender as I am. Now if Eric was female then Uncle Sam would give us his blessing no questions asked. I would be able to sponsor my spouse for permanent residency in the U.S. and my government ( that I support through my taxes), would beam it's approval down upon us both. But the fact that Eric is a man just as I am, means that as far as my government is concerned , our relationship doesn't even exist.
Now, I really didn't want to leave my country. Unlike Sarah Palin and the scared gullible bigots that hang on her every twitter posting, I really do believe that the greatness of the United States lies in our diversity. "E Pluribus Unum" - Out of Many , One. Yet for me to do something as basic as have that pursuit of happiness. To be with the person I am married to, I had to do just that. Leave my country.
So now I live here, in the United Kingdom. Because unlike in 1776, in 2011 it is the people of Great Britain who have more civil rights and greater freedom than Americans do. Unlike in 1776, in 2011 it is the American Government, not the British Crown, that subjects its people to unfair taxation without representation. Unlike in 1776, it is The United States of America that has politicians seeking to preserve a status quo of inequality and treats groups of its own citizens unfairly.
What is perhaps most confusing for us, and thousands of couples like us, is that in 2011, that states right argument is not being made by bigoted, angry State officials. This time the argument that basic civil rights should be left up to the states to decide, is being made by the first African American President of the United States.
I can't help but wonder how Barack Obama would feel, if in order to stay together with his wife Michelle, he had to leave the U.S and move overseas. Oh wait... I don't have to wonder how he would feel...
He'd feel like I do.
Have a great Fourth of July Weekend everyone. Those of us in "DOMA Exile" will be thinking of you , and waiting for America to finally live up to those words Jefferson penned, 235 years ago.