Friday, November 06, 2009

Why Gay Marriage IS a Big Deal

Like many gay Americans, I awoke this morning to the news that Maine voted for repealing a law allowing same sex couples to marry. I was saddened by the fact. And like clockwork, a lot of my friends starting saying bad things about the people of Maine and threatening not to spend any money there.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Washington State approved a referendum that allowed domestic partnerships in the Evergreen State.

The win apparent win in Washington (which has seemingly been ignored among gays and our supporters) has started me thinking about how to best allow gays marriage rights. I've vacilated between calling for full marriage equality and calling it a marriage, and asking for something like a marriage ala civil unions. Yesterday's decisions has made me think that it's time to change how we work for marriage rights.

I think one thing that those of us who support same sex marriage have to admit is that asking that straight America get used to two people of the same sex getting married is a radical shift in how we think about marriage and love. Yeah, I know, getting married is not radical, it's as normal as two hetros getting married. But the fact is, that the thought of two people of the same sex getting married is still something that a lot of Americans can't get their heads around. It's not that they are all closet bigots. They can understand and accept gays in society. They can understand that gay people fall in love. But when we start talking about marriage, it starts to get confusing for them. Think about it for a moment. When the average Joe thinks about marriage, they think about bridal gowns and bachelor parties. But all of this is lost on most of us that support gay marriage. Listen to what Conor Friedersdorf says:

Would the legalization of gay marriage really be a “radical redefinition” of the social and cultural institution? Maybe same sex marriage is a radical departure from marriage as understood by orthodox Christians, or people for whom it is primarily a procreative union.

But I submit that a majority of Americans subscribe to a definition that more closely resembles the following: Marriage is the union of people who fall in love with one another, decide that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and commit to do so monogamously. The definition I’ve offered isn’t merely more commonly accepted among Americans than whatever Rod Dreher would describe, it is perfectly consistent with marriage laws as now written.

I think Conor is off on a lot of points. For one, most gay marriage supporters, myself included, think about marriage as a contractual and legal mechanisim in addition to all the things about love and monogamy. But I would argue that most Americans don't think about marriage in such terms and focus on all the cultural aspects: the photos, the bridal gown, the wedding ceremony and the like. All of that contractual stuff is handled off to side usually after the wedding ceremony, where the state certified officant and the bride and groom sign their marriage license. It's an afterthought.

Second, if most Americans think this way, then why has our side lost everytime the subject of gay marriage comes up for a vote? If we won a few and lost a few, I could agree but when we have lost each and every time, then we have to start wondering what are we doing wrong.

I think that one way we can advance the cause of gay marriage is by doing a few things: first, redefining what victory means; second, listening to our opponents, and three divorcing gay marriage from the civil rights movement.

First off is redefining victory. What this really boils down to is lowered expectations. It means pushing for marriage rights without using the word marriage. I know that many will say that not pushing for full marriage equality is rendering gay people to second class citizens and I would agree. But I would respond by showing those losses again. Thirty-one losses. Do we want half-a-loaf or none? The thing is, most European countries went through a period of calling same sex marriage for gays something else before marriage was made legal. The UK currently has marriage rights, but they don't call it a marriage at this point. Like Europe, I think most Americans are willing to give gay couples some marriage rights but at this point can't rationally wrap their minds around concepts like same sex marriage. I'm not saying that we should never call gay marriage a marriage or stop pushing for full marriage rights. But sometimes we have to find ways to make change happen incrementally, rather than betting the farm and losing it in the process. My own suggestion is that states like Maine and California should be pushing for civil unions and domestic partnerships first, and then move towards full marriage rights later down the road. Push for something that is marriage, but just don't call it marriage. It's just too emotionally charged.

Second, we need to listen to those that voted against same sex marriage. Instead of automatically branding these people as bigots, we need to understand why they voted against these measures. I really doubt that the good people are of Maine are all homophobes. But there has to be a reason they voted no. And let's stop whining about the Catholic Church or the Mormons or the Masons, or what-have-you. We need to find out what is keeping them from supporting same sex marriage rights and then tailor future campaigns in light of what these people say.

Finally, gay people need to stop linking their movement with the civil rights movement. I'm sorry, but one size of oppression doesn't fit all. I used to think that these two movements were alike, but while their are some similarities, there are also a ton of differences. As someone who is both African American and gay, I can say there are big differences. Let's start with marriage. Yes, many states in the South prohibited interracial marriage until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1967. Gay rights supporters have tried to link interracial marriage to same sex marriage, but the similarities are, pardon the pun, skin deep. An interracial couple that wanted to get married in say 1959 had no option to get married. At all. Also, you have to add the whole stigma of the races mixing, especially when it was a black man with a white woman. If the two were seen together in an intimate setting, then you could be sure the black man might end up in a noose a few hours later.

If two gay people are denied marriage, we have options. They aren't perfect or desired, but they are options. Also, there is less stigma attached to same-sex relationships as there are to interracial ones circa 1959. It's not great for gay couples, but it's not as dangerous either.

The other problem is that many gay marriage activists tend to copy the history of the civil rights movement using the courts to solve racial segregation. But again, the similarities are cursory. For African Americans, the courts had to be used be other venues of redress were not available. State legislatures in the South were filled with segregationists, and Southern Democrats made sure that civil rights legislation would come in its own sweet time on Capitol Hill. The courts were the last venue for justice.

For gay rights proponents, we too often want to head to the courts first, even though the passage through state legislatures is not as treacherous as it was for African Americans. African Americans used the courts in the 40s, 50s and 60s because we had no other choice. Gay Americans do have some choices.

Do I want to see gay marriage become a reality? Yes. But I'm learning that we need to learn to pick our battles and settle for partial victories on the way to ending the war. I'm also learning that not everyone who is queasy about gay marriage is a bigot ready to bash me. I'm learning that if we want to get to a point where same sex couples can have equal marriage rights, we are going to have to think and strategize and find the best steps to get to that point even if it means gradual change.

Marriage is a worthy goal. Let's think about how best to get there.

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