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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gay marriage essay

Laura asked me to write something about the latest developments on gay marriage for this year's Pride Guide, because it serves as a bit of a "time capsule" and it wouldn't be complete without it.  I thought I'd have trouble coming up with the minimum 800 words, but I ended up having to leave some stuff out and it was almost 1300 words. (She was thrilled with it, by the by.)

Gay marriage finally gets its due

It’s impossible not to feel that tingle of victory, after so many setbacks and insults, when President Obama said those 11 little words: “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Of course, no legislation has been passed, no regulations have been changed, but it feels momentous for the Leader of the Free World to offer such naked validation.  What does it really mean? Maybe very little, but maybe enough.

President Obama made his historic statement to Robin Roberts in an ABC News interview, after Joe Biden went “off script” during a May 6 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage.  Biden’s unexpected assertion caused a firestorm among the political commetariat, and the next day, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, was asked during a press conference whether he supported gay marriage; he simply responded “Yes.”  I believe that Biden’s remarks were completely spontaneous – he’s positively famous for his lack of self-censorship.  But I’m cynical enough to wonder if Secretary Duncan’s response was a weather balloon sent up by the Obama administration to test the climate for negative reaction.  When it didn’t materialize, President Obama made his instantly resonant comments. 

It’s interesting to note that attitudes have altered faster on this topic than any social issue in the history of the United States.  In less than 2 decades, support for gay marriage has moved from about 25% to about 50%. A point or two each year doesn’t sound like much, but compared to other social issues, such as interracial marriage and women’s suffrage, which took many decades to become accepted, the attitude change regarding gay marriage has occurred at warp speed!

You can make the argument that President Obama is only responding to changing political winds – the tipping point has been reached: polls show that more people now support gay marriage rights than don’t.  Conservatives even accuse the president of pandering, which is positively delicious - who would have ever thought that supporting LGBTQ people would constitute that? But even if he is, even if this is a poll-tested position, we’ll take it.  Because, just like EF Hutton, when the president talks, people listen.

Some activists don’t even think that traditional marriage should be a focus (the focus?) of the LGBTQ community’s efforts. Why would our community want to limit itself to such an archaic institution? “Free to be” is our battle cry. But there it is - for some, what they want to be is married.  And as the issue has played out over the last decade, the outline has gotten larger and larger, encompassing a whole range of ideas, about dignity, and values, and perhaps most importantly, second-class citizenship and civil rights.

According to the Government Accounting Office, 1138 rights and protections are conferred to U.S. citizens by the federal government when they get married, including Social Security benefits, veterans' benefits, health insurance, Medicaid, hospital visitation, estate taxes, retirement savings, pensions, family leave, and various aspects of immigration laws.

The subject has been in the political atmosphere for decades, but it burst onto the scene in 2000 when Governor Howard Dean signed the first ever same sex partner bill into law in Vermont, and subsequently ran for president, thrusting the issue into the national spotlight.  At the time, polls consistently found that about 2/3 of people were against same sex unions.

The LGBTQ community has included recognition of our partnerships on the agenda since Stonewall, but the issue gained more prominence when a Hawaii trial court judge challenged the state’s same-sex ban in 1993 (noting that the state had no “compelling interest” in the limitation). Although marriage is clearly a state issue, Congress responded to events in Hawaii by passing DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, in 1996, stating that the only marriages that would be recognized by the federal government are those between one man and one woman. While deeply offensive to many, DOMA does not preclude states defining marriage in other ways.

A number of states passed civil union legislation in the years following Vermont’s law: Connecticut (2005), New Jersey (2007), New Hampshire (2007), Illinois (2010), Rhode Island (2011), Hawaii (2011), and Delaware (2011).  Marriage licenses are issued to same sex couples in 6 states, as a result of legislation or court rulings: Massachusetts (2004), Connecticut (2008), Vermont (2009), Iowa (2009), New Hampshire (2010), and New York (2011), as well as in the District of Columbia (2009).  Maryland and Washington were added to the list just this year, but both are facing voter referenda this fall.

During this same period, states started to put measures on election ballots, as voter referenda, outlawing the recognition of same sex partnerships and defining marriage as limited to “one man and one woman.” Of the 28 states which have put the issue to voters, all the measures have passed.

Prior to the North Carolina initiative this spring, where recognition of same sex relationships was banned by passing a constitutional amendment (by a sizable margin - 61% to 39%), the effort to garner the most attention was certainly the Proposition 8 fight in California in 2008, when loads of outside money, much of it from the Mormon Church, helped pass a same sex marriage ban in the nation’s most populous, and arguably most progressive, state.  Perceptions noticeably shifted – it’s one thing to insult and marginalize gays in the Bible Belt, but in California? Some who had not been paying attention previously started to notice just how cruel and offensive the arguments against marriage were. The Ninth District Court ruled the California law unconstitutional earlier this year, though it provided for a grace period, so the battle continues in that state, while the nation watches carefully.

While working on this essay, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest civil rights organization in the US, passed a resolution supporting gay marriage, at a meeting of their board of directors, saying it opposed any policy or legislative initiative that “seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the constitutional rights of LGBT citizens.”  The black churches have often been uncomfortable with the issue, and the majority of African Americans oppose it, but the NAACP has been supportive of gay marriage initiatives at the state level. They apparently decided the time was right for the national organization to take a public stand, citing their unwavering commitment to the 14th Amendment (“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”)  Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, choked back tears during the announcement – his own parents had to cross state lines to get married in 1966 because his mother was black and his father was white, and interracial marriage was illegal at that time where they lived, in Maryland.

I can’t lie – the events this week feel like a balm (after being stabbed with 28 knives!)  Virtually all political analysts acknowledge that demographics are destiny with this issue (as with almost any issue). In this case, the vast majority of younger voters simply do not object to gay marriage. And while older voters do, their influence is by definition temporary.  The delightful and thrilling news is that the shift is happening so much more quickly than predicted.  We can hope that states will soon begin to reform their laws, and we can turn our attention to the many other pressing issues that concern us.

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