5 easy steps to marriage freedom
SN&R’s special ‘summer of equality’ anniversary issue
I spent last year’s Independence Day holiday planning a wedding. I was not alone. Around 18,000 couples said “I do” last summer, following the California Supreme Court decision that found marriage equality was guaranteed by the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution.
Then, on November 4, a majority of California voters rejected marriage equality by enacting Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. The marches, rallies and candlelight vigils that sprang up almost overnight, not just in California but around the United States, are evidence that the amendment of the state’s constitution to remove the right to marry for gays and lesbians was an unexpected and upsetting turn of events for many of us.
I’m pretty jaded when it comes to politics—after all, the first presidential vote I cast went to a guy who conceded before the polls closed—but I still found myself crying the day after the November election, and not because I was so happy that Barack Obama won. And like many of California’s gays and lesbians, married or not, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next.
Many hopes, including mine, were pinned on the California Supreme Court. Historically, the protection of minority rights has been the province of court decisions, rather than majority votes. But the court split the baby, figuratively, at least, when they upheld Prop. 8 and at the same time affirmed the validity of the marriages—including mine—performed during the state’s summer of equality.
And even as we anxiously waited for word on the status of our own marriages, gay people in California also watched the whole national landscape change on this issue.
Full marriage equality has become the law of the land in five other states since Prop. 8 passed, sometimes by court decision, and sometimes by legislative action. The Connecticut and Iowa state supreme courts affirmed marriage equality as a right under their states’ constitutions, as Massachusetts had done in 2003. Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire legislatures passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. New York, at the direction of Gov. David Paterson, is now recognizing marriages performed in other states, and efforts are underway to get a marriage-equality bill through the state legislature this summer.
Some activists opposed to marriage equality are attempting to qualify ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage in some of those states, but for now, 21 percent of Americans live in a state where gay marriage is legal.
Not in California, though, except for those of us who belong to the 18,000 “special couples” group.
Now the statewide movement for marriage equality is recharging. It is true that first we had to grieve the loss of a constitutional right, vent a certain amount of anger and wade through all sorts of postmortems on what went wrong.
But then we started asking what should be done differently next time.
I tracked down a number of people in the Sacramento region who are concerned with marriage rights—not all of them gay, not all of them activists, but all of them committed to seeing GLBT people treated equally. I asked them about what they thought went wrong last time, and how we might win next time, whenever it comes.
They had plenty to say, and their suggestions break down into five simple categories:1. Reach out to other minority groups.
Initial post-election polls showed that African-American voters tended to favor Prop. 8. That felt like a punch in the gut—especially since so many in the gay community had worked hard to elect the country’s first African-American president.
“Right after the campaign, when we found out we lost, they did the big thing where people said, ‘All the African-Americans hate gay people,’” said Jade Baranski, a 23-year-old Midtowner who volunteered for the No on 8 campaign.
“Well, first, that was really slanted and taken out of context and not correct,” she continued. Later polling made clear that African-American voters, even though they did turn out in large numbers for the historic election, didn’t represent enough of the electorate to be the deciding factor in the passage of Proposition 8. In terms of predicting a vote against marriage equality, church attendance and age were more relevant than race. Still, it’s apparent that the gay community has some work to do to win over communities of color.
Anthony Woods thinks the coalition building needs to start with creating bridges between communities. “We’re going to have to come back and be smarter about how we reach out to different groups,” he said.
Woods, a West Point graduate and veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, is currently running to succeed Ellen Tauscher in California’s 10th Congressional District. He’s sure that gay people and people of color have more in common than whatever might separate them.
And should marriage-equality activists surrender to the urge to blame other minority groups for Prop. 8’s passage rather than building bridges to those communities, it would have a big benefit for ultraconservative causes. “What a fantastic thing for the right to drive this wedge between two groups who actually have a lot in common and see eye to eye on many issues,” said Woods. “It would be fantastic for the right to say, ‘Oh, look, African-Americans killed this for you, gay community. What do you think about that?’” Stirring up those counterproductive attitudes, Woods noted, “doesn’t help anyone but the far right.”
“It’s about finding areas of common interest,” he elaborated. “The LGBT community needs to recognize the value of going out and working on the civil rights for African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. You can’t get angry that these groups didn’t show up for you when you didn’t show up for them.”
And while Woods specifically said that the relationship between communities needn’t be a transactional one, “Inequality and injustice should always be LGBT issues.” He pointed out that many gay people are members of more than one minority group, and what’s more, in any given situation, “You can be sure that if people of color are being treated badly, discriminated against, then LGBT people are going to see the same thing happening to them, and so a bit of unity would be a good thing.”
Baranski is an organizer with Equality Action Now and works closely with other self-described queer youth. “There’s more diversity in the younger crew, for sure,” she said, pointing out that for many youth, the lines between races, genders and sexual orientation are not so hard and fast as the divisions drawn by their elders. But she acknowledged that relations between white gay people and gay people of color could use some improving, too.
“If you go out to a bar, you see the white people hanging out with white people, and the black people hang out with the black people, and that’s the reality of it. And it’s really sad,” she said.
That’s got to change if marriage equality—if any real equality—is to become reality.2. Work closely with religious groups.
“Gay people vs. church people” was the overriding theme in media coverage of the Prop. 8 campaign. The slant undoubtedly had to do with the amount of money and organization that came from groups and individuals affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some Roman Catholic organizations, and Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group.
It made for an easy conflict, but it wasn’t true.
Yes, the Mormons, the Knights of Columbus, and Focus on the Family did a lot of organizing and rolled out the big bucks. As Baranski put it, “The churches on the other side could get their people out in hordes in a day.” That organization compared quite unfavorably with what the marriage-equality forces managed. “We don’t all go sit in the same place on Sunday and pass the bucket and turn over our campaign money. That’s just not how we roll,” she said. “We couldn’t get a horde if you paid us.”
But more than 900 religious groups, faith leaders and congregations, including the California Council of Churches, co-signed an amicus curiae brief asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Prop. 8. A coalition of religious denominations and individual congregations formed to fight the proposition, and a number of interfaith services were held to oppose the revocation of marriage equality.
The Rev. Lindi Ramsden, the soft-spoken executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry in California, has her suspicions about how the myth that all religious people supported Prop. 8 became so widespread. “Maybe it’s a little bit of a simpler story,” she said, “in that there’s a couple of very strongly focused religious voices, from the Mormons, the Catholics and the evangelical communities as well, whereas on the other side, it was a rather broad sweep of different groups, and not always the entire organization.”
“There wasn’t enough attention given to the churches who opposed Prop. 8,” said the Rev. Janice Steele, pastor of Midtown’s Imani Community United Church of Christ. “Many people of all faiths were out there for us, wearing their robes in the heat of the day.”
Steele is an intense woman with the powerful voice of a trained singer, which she was before entering the ministry. She had no sympathy for gay people with anti-religious signs at the rallies and marches following the defeat of Prop. 8.
“I know many gay people have been hurt in church,” she said. “Healing happens, and it takes time, but we have to want to be healed.” She used the example of getting food poisoning once and deciding that meant you had to stop eating, which she rightly pointed out is not a very sensible or healthy decision. “It’s the same thing with churches. Just because we’ve been hurt doesn’t mean we should stop going. If we’ve been hurt, we create our own sacred spaces.”
Steele’s also got some stern but necessary words for gays and lesbians who stay in anti-gay churches. “My message to the LGBT community is this: Stop being pimped!” she said. “Stop allowing churches to pimp your talents. Stop directing the choir in a place where they say you’re an abomination! We’d never go to a church and direct their choir if their doctrine said black people had a separate heaven and hell from the ones for white people. We wouldn’t put up with it, and we don’t need to put up with this anti-gay stuff, either.”
Meanwhile, Baranski praises the work of what she calls the “happy” churches. “We need them, because every civil-rights movement has had the faith community behind them,” she said. “We’re not going to get anywhere without them.” She also pointed out that the faith groups have the ability to get people who might not support same-sex marriage to at least talk about it.
The bottom line: Work closely, loudly and proudly with supportive churches and stop enabling those that enforce discrimination.3. Be clear about the difference between civil marriage and religious marriage.
Apparently, many Californians don’t understand where the church stops and the government starts. That may require a refresher course in both civics and catechism.
Ramsden says that confusion exists in both faith communities and among the public at large. “The average person understands a wedding, and most people go to weddings that have a religious person officiating at it, and at the end of that, somehow or other, the people are legally married,” she said. “But when you go to a baptism, the minister isn’t signing the birth certificate, and when you go to a funeral, the minister doesn’t sign the death certificate.” In those sacred ceremonies, the difference between the role of the state and the role of the church is more clearly delineated.
Steele agrees. “Most people in the church still see marriage as a religious issue, not a civil issue,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’re right, but it means we have to address it.”
The Rev. James Kosko, pastor of the Elk Grove Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, is in complete agreement about the need to separate “marriage the sacrament” from “marriage the contract.” In fact, he’s become part of a movement among clergy members to stop signing state marriage licenses.
“I am moving, in my ministry, toward a separation of religious from civil marriage,” Kosko said. The denomination to which he belongs recently began discussing ways that ministers could separate the wedding ceremonies from civil marriage, and one of those was to no longer sign civil marriage licenses. “Of course, we will still perform weddings, which in our faith tradition are a religious ceremony,” he said. That is the sort of blessing ceremony that many faiths which doctrinally approve of same-sex unions have long employed to recognize those relationships.
All the clergy I spoke with agreed that working closely with religious groups can both help educate people about the difference between civil and religious marriage and break down any lingering prejudices or fears about gay people in general.
But it’s important, says Ramsden, to “reach out to people of faith who may not agree with marriage of same-sex couples being something that’s celebrated in their church, but who are willing to allow other churches and other civil marriages to happen.”
That’s a point that Rick Jacobs agrees with. The founder and director of the Courage Campaign, Jacobs thinks it might eventually be possible to persuade even the biggest opponents of gay marriage to sign on.
“I think it’s really important to make clear that I support the right of the Mormon Church not to marry gay people,” he said. “We need to make that clear to everybody. If the Mormons or the Catholics don’t want to marry people in their churches, that’s their right. But equally, it’s the obligation of the state to provide civil marriage for everyone who wants to get married in the state. The Mormons and the Catholics should be supportive of this in the legal sense, not in the religious sense—but in the legal sense.”
It’s a matter of religious freedom, Jacobs said. That’s what we have to make completely clear.4. Put gay and lesbian faces out front.
No on 8 campaign television ads featured lots of straight people asking California voters to protect equality for gays and lesbians. Whether it was the parents of a gay person (lovely, supportive people, to be sure), U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, or California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, they all had one thing in common.
They weren’t real, live, actual gay people.
“There was no reference to our community in the public face of the campaign,” said Baranski. “We just weren’t there, and it was embarrassing.”
If the plan was to avoid frightening voters who don’t know gays and lesbians personally, it didn’t work. Experience—not to mention research—has demonstrated for years that the single biggest antidote to fears and prejudices about gay people is to actually meet some. That didn’t happen for most California voters.
Baranksi counts a single discussion she had with members of a church group on behalf of the campaign as the most effective work she did. “I was the gay speaker there,” she said, “and it was really hard for me to walk into that room knowing that they were people of faith, and their church wasn’t super supportive and they weren’t really the most queer-loving folk in the world.”
But the effects were immediate. “Once you get in there and tell your story and they recognize that you’re a real person,” Baranski said, the conversation about same-sex marriage can begin. If marriage equality is to return to California, “there’s going to have to be legitimate conversations—and not the scripted conversation; that’s not going to work.” It will have to be, according to Baranski, one of the “kinds of human contact where they look into your eyes and see you, and they don’t just see the bald-headed tattooed queer kid. They see another human.”
When it comes to conversations with people who don’t know any gays or lesbians, carry preconceived notions about same-sex relationships or who insist that marriage is a special case, “It’s a frontier,” said Steele. But it’s one that needs to be crossed. “When I talk with my mom, who’s still a little hostile, bless her heart, we can still try to have a dialogue, even though she looks at marriage not as a civil right but as a religious issue.”
Jacobs is also convinced of the value of one-on-one discussions; the Courage Campaign has been conducting training sessions—called Camp Courage—that teach people how to talk about their lives to strangers. He says that Camp Courage grew out of Camp Obama, a two-day training program for organizers put together by the campaign that elected President Barack Obama. “It teaches people to organize,” said Jacobs.
Obviously, it worked for the president.
Jacobs is convinced that marriage equality is inevitable. “There’s no question about it,” he said. “The question is when and how, and to our way of thinking the ‘how’ is the most important.” He doesn’t believe that a great advertising campaign is the way to do it, though.
“The way we’ll win is by changing the way people think about LGBT people.” At Camp Courage, Jacobs says that attendees learn that changing the way other people think “starts with learning the story of self, of learning how to talk about these issues in the context of how they affect people’s lives.”
It’s the personal, one-on-one approach, “talking with people in families, in neighborhoods and in workplaces, so that people understand that equality is just normal,” said Jacobs. “We’ll help people to understand that, in California and in the U.S., diversity is our strength.”
And that means taking Camp Courage right into the places that voted for Prop. 8. “We have to engage, not the converted, but the people who care about this issue but haven’t been invited into the coalition,” Jacobs said. “We want to empower people to reach out to everybody. This is everybody’s issue.”
That’s why the Camp Courage they’re planning for Sacramento isn’t going to be in Midtown, which solidly opposed Prop. 8, but out in Rancho Cordova, where voters approved the initiative.
Talking to people who might disagree is, however uncomfortable, something Baranski agrees with strongly. During the campaign, most of her conversations with people who disagreed with her about Prop. 8 were had while phone banking, when she stuck to a script. “We got lots of hate talk while phone banking,” she said. “When they can’t see you, see that you’re a person, oh, the things they’ll say!”
But she feels that a more direct, face-to-face approach is required to really change perceptions of gay people. “We’ve got to get outside of our comfort zone, leave our little bubble,” she said. “We have to go to Rocklin and we have to go to Roseville, and it will be scary, but that’s what we have to do to win next time.”
Maybe that way, she thinks, we can transform the image of the “scary gay people” into just regular folks. “We need to get our stories, our faces out there. Our gay faces.”5. Keep the message simple.
“It needs to be the forward-thinking thing that everyone under the sun deserves the same rights, period,” said Baranski. “It’s a really simple idea.”
So much of the campaign against Prop. 8 was spent responding to charges about, for instance, whether kids would learn about homosexuality in school or whether churches would be forced to perform gay marriages, that the voters never saw gays and lesbians interacting with their own kids or attending their churches.
“I think we should be talking about the kids,” Baranski said. “We’ve been scared to do that, because of the things that have been said about us as a community that are lies.”
It’s not like there’s a shortage of families headed by same-sex parents who are raising children. According to the last U.S. Census, one-third of lesbian couples and one-fifth of gay male couples are raising children. It’s already a reality, and already mentioned as part of the curriculum (in age-appropriate ways, of course), in California schools.
So don’t tell people that the kids are OK; show them families that are doing quite well, thank you. Ramsden suggests countering the fearmongering about families and churches by telling the stories of families and churches.
“There are many, many families with gay and lesbian people in them, who are in faith communities that care for them and include them on an equal basis,” she said. “I think that’s part of the story, too.” It’s one that could use some telling, rather than focusing on only those churches and families that reject any mention of same-sex relationships.
Simply put, LGBT people aren’t just in families and churches. We are families and churches, and seeing is believing.
It also might help to point out some of the absurd reasoning that supports discrimination in marriage. Woods mentions a close friend who always tells him, “Why does no one make the point that [convicted mass murderer] Charles Manson has more rights than I do, because he can get married and I can’t?”
Baranski joked about trying to invite people to a ceremony where a person would be “domestic partnered.” She laughed. “People don’t even know how to say that. Of course, they don’t know what it means. How is that equal?”
This summer, thousands of gay and lesbian Californians will celebrate their first anniversary as married couples. I’m one of them.
My wife and I are also celebrating the ninth anniversary of our civil union in Vermont, which became invalid as soon as we moved to California. And we’re celebrating the 18th anniversary of our first date, and the 17th anniversary of deciding to live together.
We are still married, but until full marriage equality is secured, we’ll be carrying a variety of paperwork (copies of wills, powers of attorney, our California registered domestic-partnership agreement and our marriage license) in a folder with us whenever we travel. We’ve needed the documents from time to time.
For example, when my wife had a stroke in 2007, I was asked in the emergency room what our relationship was.
“We’re domestic partners,” I said.
“Can you bring in a copy of the paperwork on that?” asked the nurse. And as soon as my wife was stable, I did. It’s not like they were mean about it (in fact, props to Sutter General Hospital for taking such good care of us), but I had to wonder, how many married people are asked to present their papers?
I found out when we made another trip to the ER last month. The doctor walked in, asked a few questions, then turned to me.
“And your relationship to the patient is … ?”
“We’re married,” I said.
It’s that simple.