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DOMA and Prop 8: California is No Human Rights Paradise

Home is where the heart is. Or so they say.

Although I am proud to hail from Fargo, North Dakota, I, like many millennials, found a second home when I laid down roots as a college student. I have a North Dakota license plate in my living room, a California necklace around my neck, a campaign poster from a 1986 North Dakota Senate race in my living room, and three San Francisco bro-tanks in my laundry basket. I love the Midwest and the Best Coast for their differences and their idiosyncrasies, yet could probably count on one hand the number of times I have found similarities between the two “cultures.”  

That was until March 2013, however.

March, of course, is the month that the North Dakota State Legislature passed some of the most restrictive abortion regulations in the country. It is also the month that one of California’s most embarrassing blemishes on its human rights record, Proposition 8, has finally made its way up for oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The fight for women’s rights and gay rights have become some of the defining civil rights issues of our generation. Whereas our predecessors were fighting for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, human rights advocates of today are fighting for the right to our bodies and to love one another — resulting in a much more geographically nuanced and emotionally-charged battle. For me, the restrictions on human rights passed by individuals in both North Dakota and California are particularly heartbreaking because both issues have taken place in two seemingly disparate geographic locations — but two geographic locations I would like to call “home.”

I remember the day the California Supreme Court struck down a provision defining marriage between a man and a woman and the first gay couples started to marry at San Francisco City Hall. I remember that day because the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle was plastered on my door and a huge grin was plastered on my roommate’s face.

“Molly. I can get married,” he cried.

And then we both cried, at 10a.m. on some random Tuesday, because a person who meant so much to me, a person I knew was ten times the person I could ever be, was finally recognized with the full rights and privileges entitled to a person under California law. I also remember the day Proposition 8 passed. I remember it well because it was the day that the first African American was elected president and it was the day the people of California broke my roommate’s heart. I remember the day the North Dakota legislature passed the most restrictive abortion restrictions in the country. I remember that day because it was, unfortunately, a few days ago and it was the day that North Dakota elected officials forcibly pushed back the rights of their own 40 years.

Although most people wouldn’t compare North Dakota and California in any capacity other than they both end in “a” — both of the places I like to call “home” have made their mark on moving the civil rights battles of our generation backward. How the Supreme Court rules on Prop 8 and DOMA will hopefully prove to be a step toward finally giving people the rights they deserve. Ted Olson, the lawyer delivering the arguments in opposition to Prop 8, has called the gay rights battle “one of the last major civil-rights battles of our country.” He had been right, of course, right up until March. Until a state that recently held my heart, North Dakota, pushed us backwards.

One of my closest friends my first few months in California hesitated to tell me he was gay because, as he described it, “You’re a white girl from North Dakota. North Dakota is not exactly known for tolerance. What was I supposed to expect?”

In contrast, my high school counselor from my public high school in North Dakota, when I told him I wanted to apply to Stanford and expand my horizons, told me to “be realistic.” My very first day at Stanford, the president of the university proudly proclaimed in a speech to the entire entering Class of 2011, “We have someone from North Dakota this year!” after which a large part of my legacy was based on my Midwestern heritage. My North Dakota grandpa still asks me how things are going in California, “the fruit and nut state.” All of these experiences have made me more aware of geographic stereotypes. They have also made me more intent on shattering them. 

You have a chance to redeem yourself, North Dakota. Unlike California, however, let’s hope it doesn’t take four years and a Supreme Court battle for you to get your act together. 

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