By Chris Honoré: How to even begin to puzzle out what is taking place in America regarding the civil rights of gays — it defies understanding.

The ink had barely dried on Maine's new law allowing gays to marry, with all rights attached, when the state's voters went to the polls on Nov. 4 and struck the law down, and Maine became the 31st state to block same sex marriage through a public referendum.

How to even begin to puzzle out what is taking place in America regarding the civil rights of gays — it defies understanding.

To reiterate: this is about depriving a minority group of equal protection under the law (the 14th Amendment) and due process (the Fifth Amendment). And not to forget that both the Maine and California campaigns to define marriage as between a man and a woman were spearheaded by the National Organization for Marriage, a Christian conservative group. The result in both states was to restrict the civil rights of gays, not expand them.

But Maine and California are not alone. Twelve states have banned any form of same-sex marriage, to include civil unions; 28 have adopted amendments to their constitutions prohibiting same sex marriage (Oregon is one); and 20 states have enacted statutes to the same effect. Taken in the aggregate, it's a travesty and a violation of our most fundamental principles of fairness. As is the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 that defines marriage to be between one man and one woman. That DOMA has not been struck down as unconstitutional is indefensible. What if there was a Defense of Marriage Act that stated that only a man and woman of the same race could marry? Would that be any more egregious than DOMA?

And so the hopeful narrative of increased tolerance toward gays, to include their right to legally marry, has now been soundly derailed, a reality that is bewildering at best and outrageous at worst.

One solution would be to redefine and declare marriage (a revised DOMA) as solely a civil union between two people with all rights attached. For everyone. Without distinction. And thereby rendering the debate mute. And if couples find that their marriage has greater personal meaning if affirmed by a religious institution, so be it. But such a belief is immaterial, as is the Bible as a source text when defining marriage.

While there are differences between the civil rights movement of the '60s and the civil rights movement for gays today, there are also many similarities. And the laws that were passed then, beginning with the overturn of Plessy v. Ferguson ("separate but equal"), followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only reinforce the idea that the struggle for gay rights is a struggle for human rights. How can there be any other interpretation?

The deep and abiding prejudices against gays today mirror those irrational and insidious views held about blacks post-emancipation, buttressed then by wretched stereotypes and blatant discrimination that continued for decades in the form of Jim Crow. And recall that there was a time, in 1860, when preachers stood at their pulpits and railed against the abolitionists and constructed elaborate scripture-laden rationales for the continuation of slavery. Not unlike the Byzantine arguments offered up today by some religious organizations regarding the definition of marriage.

Two women or two men standing together to be united is nothing more than a search for happiness and fulfillment. How can that represent a threat? What harm can this inflict on anyone? What possible affront does their union represent to the institution of marriage or the family? And why should we arbitrarily deprive gays of those rights now extended to married couples (community property, filing a joint return, hospital visitations, medical decisions, pension and survivor benefits, etc.)? For what possible reason and to what end?

So what is the barrier that prevents us as a people from extending to all of our citizens — gays, straights, bisexuals, and transgenders — the right to live their lives as they wish? Are we so culturally indoctrinated, so reflexively bigoted regarding how we view the lives of gays that it's simply an emotional barrier we can't get past? And is there a sexual component that will not be named? There was a time when we could not imagine black men and women living lives of total equality, or being integrated into the armed services, or riding in the front of the bus. There was a time.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter the prism through which we view gays. All that matters is that we are a nation of laws and committed to the equality of all our citizens, regardless of color, belief or gender, no matter the prejudices or inclinations of particular groups or individuals. That's how we define America. We must always protect a minority from the tyranny of the majority. These are the truths we hold to be self-evident.

Honoré's reviews appear weekly in Revels.