Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Cross-posted in my Dispatches Column at The New Gay.


A famous senator from Arizona once said that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." And while I don't often quote Barry Goldwater, his words ring true for me. I am also reminded of the words attributed to William Gladstone, that "Justice delayed is justice denied.

The past few weeks have been amazing in the struggle for gay rights. Six months ago, gay marriage was legal in only one state. It had just been disallowed in the most populous of our states, and many of us, myself included, were disheartened. Our new, young President-Elect promised to make changes, but even he was not a supporter of civil marriage for same-sex couples. 

But 2009 has proven to be a red-letter-year for our struggle. Now five states allow gay marriage. Connecticut became the second just days after California voters amended their constitution to make it illegal, and it has been followed by Iowa, Vermont, and Maine. It looks that New Hampshire will follow suit soon as well. 

Yet all of this activity has only sufficed to make me less content with the status quo. Six months ago, I wondered if I would even live to see gay marriage in my home state of Georgia. Today, I am frustrated beyond all belief over Governor Lynch's recent delay tactics in New Hampshire. I don't live in New Hampshire, and I've only even been there just once. But his refusal to sign the bill because of an objection which amounts to mere semantics is frustrating. It is likely that this delay will be just that - a delay. New Hampshire will probably become the sixth state to allow gay marriage before summer is over, but I no longer count the struggle for gay rights in years. Now I regard every day as a potential game-changer. I am no longer content to wait. I have become more and more impatient.

The past few years have resulted in many advances. But these advances have not been enough. As an employee of the State of Maryland, I now have the ability to get Domestic Partner benefits, but that's not enough. I want to have the ability to check the spouse box on my HR forms, not the Domestic Partner box. I want the ability to marry, not to civilly unify. Words matter, especially symbolic ones. There is little more symbolic in a relationship than the word "marriage." Yet this is a word continuously denied to me. To us.

Many suggest that we should be content to accept a different word. Even if there is no legal difference, it is said, we're not allowed to use the same word. In Brown v. Board of Education the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that separate is inherently unequal. A separate word, whether it be civil union or domestic partner or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, is not the word marriage. 

The strange thing is that even our opponents can agree to that. They claim that the sanctity of marriage is preserved so long as the word is insulated. They can see the nuance in language, and they use that to deny us a word. "What's the big deal," they ask, "you're getting everything else. It's just a word." But if it's just a word, why do they care so much about it? Because it's not just a word. It is a symbol. 

And it's a right. In a unanimous decision in 1967's Loving Decision, the United States Supreme Court overturned Virginia's miscegenation laws. The opinion of the court states that "Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival..." That sounds pretty darn clear to me. And I'm tired of waiting.

Of course, I don't mean to deplore the rights we have won after hard fights. Is a domestic partnership better than an unrecognized relationship? Yes. Should we continue to fight for what rights we can achieve? Yes. But we should not settle. Not until no child in America has to fear coming out of the closet will I settle. And as long as the government insists on making prejudiced and unjust distinctions, homophobia and heterosexism will continue to thrive unabated in America. Gay children will see that some citizens are allowed to marry, but not their gay role models. Not their friends' homosexual parents. Not those who might give them the hope and confidence necessary to deal with the coming out experience.

And while nothing short of a Supreme Court ruling will assuage my impatience, my confidence is bolstered by some recent news. Support for both civil unions and gay marriage is increasing across the United States. Additionally, more and more of the electorate is self-identifying as LGBT. I'm confident that full gay rights are only a matter of when not if, but the progress is not fast enough for me. Last week, former presidential candidate Howard Dean said that gay marriage will not even be an issue in 2010. Next year. I hope he's right, but the tide does not seem to be moving that quickly to me.


Michael Kelly said...

It seems to me that there is a middle ground solution that (although unlikely ever to occur) would accomplish the three goals that various parties feel are important in this context: 1. That all consenting adults are permitted the same rights with regard to their lifelong committed relationships. 2. That all of these couple are allowed to use the word marriage (if this is important to them). 3. That heterosexual couples can preserve the 'sanctity' (a word that to me, implies a religious meaning) of marriage.

Here is what I propose. At some point in the future, all government documents with reference to marriage will change. The word marriage will be removed and replaced with a word like 'civil union,' wherever it is found in tax codes, criminal codes, everything. All existing marriages certified by state governments will similarly change their name into a 'civil union.' In essence, the government will get out of the habit of using the word 'marriage' at all. Now, at the same time, for every couple already joined together in a ceremony by a religious or spiritual leader, they can feel free to continue referring to themselves as 'married' in the context of that religious or spiritual community. Some religious communities will accept same-sex couples as being 'married,' others will not, but it is up to that group. If the couple are not a member of a religious community, they can use the word 'married' at their own discretion. Moving forward, the government will not issue marriage licenses, only civil union licenses. If a couple wishes to be 'married' they can perform whatever religious/spiritual ceremony they feel is necessary, and their religious leader will still be legally able to sign their civil union documentation, but the government won't care if you call yourself married or not. The two partners in a civil union can still be referred to as husband and wife, husband and husband, or wife and wife, but that key emotional word "marriage" is left out of this altogether.

So... everyone gets the same rights (those of a civil union); any couple can call themselves married after completing whatever ritual they feel is necessary; and those religions who choose not to acknowledge same-sex marriage can continue to make that choice, with same-sex couples of that faith making their own decision about whether that community is right for them.

Dave Murphy said...

I have to say I strongly believe in the above comment. Marriage is, historically, more of a religious concept. If the rights being sought by LGBT groups are strictly legal, and the legal term is marriage, then it is natural for advocates on these issues to seek entitlements associated with marriage.

The problem I see with this is that it alienates people unfamiliar and inherently uneasy about the idea of gay couples being granted marriage, a term that they might consider to hold more meaning in a religious context.

In this case, I believe it is the responsibility of the Federal Government to remove the term marriage from *all* legal statuses granted by the government.

I think that if this occurs, the term "gay marriage" is no longer necessary. If that one term is eliminated, the polarizing effects of the term are eliminated with it, which I believe would remove a lot of the objection standing in the way of these rights being granted.

Furthermore, as a heterosexual, I don't care what the federal government calls my marriage. When I get married, it will be in my religious community, and it will be recognized as such by them. If the Federal Government assigns it a secular tag (which they should, separation of church and state) that is the same a what they assign gay couples and common law couples not married in a religious institution, that's fine. One is legal rights, and the other is what many people would consider a religious sacrament. The Federal Government should make that distinction.