by Susie Gelman
Special to WJW
Mark Carson worked as a manager at a gelato kiosk in Grand Central Station in New York City. According to a co-worker, he was a nice man who would serve customers even after closing hours. But on a recent Friday night, Carson was senselessly and brazenly gunned down in New York’s West Village by an assailant who first stalked him and his male companion, shouting anti-gay epithets, before shooting Carson in the face and killing him instantly.
A recent study has revealed that in politically conservative areas of this country, 20 percent of gay teens are reported to have attempted suicide, in contrast to a 4 percent rate among their straight peers. Other estimates of national suicide rates among gay teens range between three and four times the number of attempts by young heterosexuals.
In contrast to these most disturbing facts and figures – Raymond Kelly, police commissioner of New York City, reports an increase in hate crimes in 2013, and attacks on gay men in that city are on the rise – there has been significant progress in the area of same-sex marriage in the United States. Last November, Maryland became the first state in the Union to approve marriage equality in a popular referendum. Just since May 1, three states – Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island – have legalized same-sex marriage, and Illinois appears likely in the near future to become the 13th state to validate marriages of gay and lesbian couples.
How do we reconcile what appears to be a climate of growing tolerance for members of the LGBT community in our country, as indicated by the increasing recognition of marriage equality, with shocking, blatant acts of anti-gay violence such as the murder of Mark Carson? While such a violent act is incomprehensible in any part of this country, it took on an added resonance because of its location – the West Village, home to a large number of gays and lesbians, and not far from the Stonewall Inn, considered to be the birthplace of the gay liberation movement.
Next month, the United States Supreme Court will issue decisions in two potential landmark cases concerning marriage equality: Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor. At stake in the Hollingsworth case is whether or not Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, violates that state’s constitution. Windsor presents a matter of federal law, namely the constitutionality of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as that between a man and a woman, thus denying same-sex couples the right to 1,100 federal marital benefits, including the right to file a joint tax return, exemption from estate tax for a surviving spouse, access to federal family and medical leave, eligibility of a surviving spouse or child to receive Social Security payments, and literally hundreds of additional benefits.
Since the Court heard both cases in late March, speculation has run rampant as to the potential outcomes. Unlike the activist Warren Court of the 1960s, the Roberts Court appears unlikely to take a bold, progressive stance by declaring a federal constitutional right to marry. Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most liberal justices on the Court, has expressed doubts about the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling for reproductive freedom. Ginsburg has publicly questioned the propriety of the decision itself as having been too far-reaching, thus creating 40 years of societal backlash and ongoing challenges to Roe and a woman’s right to choose. Court observers have drawn an analogy between that position and a potential ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. But whether or not the Supreme Court takes up the mantle and finds marriage equality to be a constitutional mandate, the tide is inexorably turning in favor of expanding LGBT rights.
I am the proud mother of an openly gay man, so Mark Carson’s murder struck a deep chord in me – he could have been my son. But whether or not one has an LGBT family member or close friend – and more of you do than you may realize – our Jewish values and our history obligate us to reject intolerance in any guise, whether based on race, religion or sexual orientation. Our people’s experience with discrimination throughout the millennia, and the fundamental Jewish precept that every person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, obligate us to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards bigotry and prejudice. While we may not be able to prevent all random acts of violence, we can redouble our efforts to defeat anti-gay attitudes as expressed in the words we use, the jokes we make, and the moral lessons that we impart to our children. The murder of Mark Carson and that of Matthew Shepard before him require nothing less.
Susie Gelman is the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a part owner of the Washington Jewish Week. She and her husband, Michael, are co-chairing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, to be held in Jerusalem November 10-13, 2013.