To get old is to become embarrassed. I am sorry that I didn’t see the suffering of my gay friends growing up. In fact, I likely contributed to it. I also did not understand when gay activists equated their situation with the black struggle for civil rights. I hope I can be forgiven. I did not comprehend what I could not feel. Civil rights activist Stokely Carmichel said it best in a 1966 speech:
I maintain that every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people. For example, I am black. I know that. I also know that while I am black, I am a human being, and therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people didn’t know that. Every time I tried to go into a place they stopped me. So, some boys had to write a bill to tell that white man, “He’s a human being; don’t stop him.” That bill was for that white man, not for me. I knew it all the time. I knew it all the time.
The fight for civil rights and human dignity is as important today as it ever was. That’s why I recommend listening to the actual oral arguments in Masterpiece Cake versus Colorado Civil Rights Commission . We’ve all heard about this case, where a baker refused to make a custom cake for a gay couple. But it’s important to know that the baker never asked the couple what they wanted on the cake — he did not object to a particular message, image, style or decoration. He just said no, I won’t treat you like other customers.
Colorado spent eight years working on legislation to protect people from this type of discrimination. The actual statute says that businesses can’t discriminate based on “Race, Color, Disability, Sex, Sexual Orientation (including transgender status), National Origin/Ancestry, Creed, Marital Status and Retaliation.” They listed these groups because there had been discrimination against them.
The law doesn’t protect all people. Businesses don’t have to serve bigots, racists or people being really mean, drunk or too loud, for example. But for the protected groups the law says, just treat them like you do everyone else. The list of things you can’t do is simple: “denial of service, terms and conditions, unequal treatment, failure to accommodate and retaliation.”
The lawyers for the baker argue that he is an artist, and the government is forcing “compelled speech.” But the baker did not reject WHAT the couple wanted on their cake, he rejected WHO wanted the cake. Colorado law does not compel the baker to write or not write anything. If the baker wants to restrict his business to “Cakes with Bible Verses,” that would be fine — as long as he applied it to everyone. Likewise, the baker could refuse to put profanity or nudity on all his cakes. But this case was not about profanity, nudity or even free speech — it’s about human rights.
If straight people need the Supreme Court of the United States to tell them that gay people are human beings, so be it. But wouldn’t it be better if our moral leaders, who have so eloquently fought for human dignity, would champion a state trying to protect the dignity of its citizens?
Our Declaration of Independence states, “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…” Some people saw this as sad hypocrisy from a nation of slaveholders, but hypocrisy is the first step to enlightenment. A moral people should start with a lofty goal, and then try to live up to it. May we ever aspire to being better, and now is the time. Thank you, Colorado voters, legislators and judges. May the court always uphold your careful and inspired lesson in human dignity.
Greg Hampikian is a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State and director of the Idaho Innocence Project.