Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage hit with the sun-beam warmth of “Acknowledgement,” the opening track of John Coltrane’s swinging, metaphor-ready masterpiece A Love Supreme.
The news arrived with a rush, like that gong strike and cymbal wash punctuated by Coltrane’s righteous tenor sax and McCoy Tyner’s rapturous piano. A majority of the justices—though fewer than one would hope—interpreted our Constitution with the vision it deserves; it is not merely a product of or for its time. The decision, for hundreds of thousands of Americans and their families, provided a civil rights victory, an acknowledgement of equality and humanity, and an affirmation of love.
It’s a shame that four justices continue to reveal themselves as regressive, spiteful literalists. Clarence Thomas especially deserves a Charles Barkley ass-whooping.
“Any form of discrimination, you have to check it,” declared Sir Charles in support of equal rights for gays. The outspoken Hall of Fame basketball player is admittedly not renowned as a constitutional scholar, but he is a keen and bluntly eloquent observer of hypocrisy; in a 2011 interview about playing with gay teammates, Barkley stated, “I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”
“In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law,” wrote Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in his famous dissent of the infamous, 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which upheld racial segregation. The deeply religious Coltrane believed the same in respect of God. “We are all one in His grace,” says the poem/sermon that accompanies A Love Supreme and shares its name.
Of God, Coltrane further adds in A Love Supreme’s liner notes: “May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.” There aren’t many endeavors as human and worthwhile as sharing one’s love and life with another.
The march to equality in this country is slow and sad and littered with casualties. But then there are those liberating bursts. Of Friday’s historic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, President Obama, who has admitted a change of perspective on the matter, said: “…sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
In their pursuit of happiness, dogs don’t care whether their proprietors are gay; like Coltrane, they “believe in all religions” in which love lies at the heart. They seem to innately understand what has taken us so long to concede; that love, divine or not, is an indivisible right.
As a closeted Midwestern kid just a few decades ago, amid the emergence of AIDS and rampant homophobia, when taunts of “faggot” haunted anyone who didn’t play sports or verbally express an interest in boobs every 15 minutes, I didn’t dare to imagine this level of equality.
“How does it feel?” a childhood friend asked via text after the announcement of the Supreme Court ruling. I invoked ’Trane, whose A Love Supreme is celebrating its 50th anniversary and is just one year removed from the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964:
“ELATION — ELEGANCE — EXALTATION—”