Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

These days, it seems that culture wars have as secure a standing in America as apple pie and baseball. 

The recent battle between entertainment blogger Perez Hilton and Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean highlights one of the most contentious cultural debates facing our nation: same-sex marriage.

Unless you’ve been avoiding all forms of mainstream media for the past month, you’re probably aware that 21-year-old Miss California’s response to Hilton’s question about legalizing same-sex marriage on a national level sparked a media firestorm that only the modern instantaneous news cycle could produce. There were press conferences with Donald Trump, instant endorsements of the beauty queen by anti-same-sex marriage groups, battles between the left and right media talking heads, and of course, topless photos released on the Internet.

However, as the incessant media coverage begins to dwindle and Prejean’s 15 minutes of fame finally comes to a close, our nation has come no closer to addressing the fact that the civil right to marry is still systematically denied to a portion of our population.

During the April 19 pageant, in which Prejean finished runner-up, she explained her belief that marriage should remain between a man and a woman. A whirlwind tour of daytime talk shows followed, during which Prejean justified her answer, saying her intent was to remain biblically, rather than politically, correct. 

Prejean was also featured in an advertisement produced by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) that warned against the potentially threatening “consequences of same-sex marriage” and later announced that she would be a spokesperson for the group.

At a press conference on May 12, Trump, who partially owns the Miss Universe Organization, announced that Prejean would be allowed to keep her Miss California crown, despite the recent emergence of some risqué photos of her. He also defended the contestant’s right to speak her belief that marriage should be between a man and woman.

Trump was right in that regard. Prejean should not be punished for honestly answering the question she was asked. And while the subsequent release of her topless photos seemingly undermines the moral righteousness that she used to initially justify her position, that’s not really the problem either.

What is truly at issue is the fact that by joining the campaign to fight same-sex marriage on a legislative level, Prejean took her beliefs beyond simply answering a controversial question.

It is one thing to oppose same-sex marriage on strictly religious and personal grounds, even when those religious beliefs might be masking bigotry and intolerance. However, by partnering with groups like NOM, which influences policymakers to keep same-sex marriage illegal, Prejean is using her crown in an effort to deny people the fundamental right to marry — people who Prejean, as Miss California, is supposed to represent.

“On April 19 on that stage, I exercised my freedom of speech, and I was punished for doing so,” Prejean said at the May 12 press conference. “This should not happen in America. It undermines the constitutional rights for which my grandfather fought.”

Miss California is right — her free speech should not be denied in America. But neither should the 1,138 federal protections and benefits that are not extended to the gay couples that cannot legally marry or enter civil unions in this country. 

Perhaps Prejean should consider that her grandfather fought not only for her constitutional and civil rights, but everyone’s. Maybe then, she can wear a Miss California crown representing all the people of our diverse state, not just those who fit the status quo.