Where do we go from here? Many in our community are asking this question. At the recent Marriage Forum sponsored by the Empire State Pride Agenda, activists and other interested New Yorkers vented about where we went wrong and what was needed to get the message of Marriage For All across in an effective and inspiring way.
While this is an undeniably complex question, and the myriad of answers depend entirely on to whom we are talking at the time, there are a couple of broad principles that make perfect sense to me, but often fall on resistant, if not deaf, ears within the LGBT community.
First, reframe the marriage discussion.
This does not mean throw out what has been effective in the past. This does not mean asking for less than full equality. What I am talking about is an expansion of the current vocabulary to encompass and encourage a universal humanity. This new approach accepts the possibility of civil union or domestic partnership protection on the road to full marriage and that is why, I believe, some marriage advocates have a problem with it.
What I am talking about is nothing less than what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy alluded to in his eloquent and spot-on decision in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas sodomy case. Kennedy did not speak as much to a “right of privacy” limited to gay individuals, but of a “liberty” interest that applied to everyone. He said that societies are more successful when all persons in those societies are protected. He suggested that the liberty interests of all are affected by the limitations of those interests on any single minority group.
We must take his message and incorporate it into all aspects of our outreach. What does that look like? Our current “equality” argument asserts that gay people deserve the right to marry because we are equal to non-gay people and everyone deserves equality. Amen, I agree. But the “liberty” version of this argument says that gay people deserve the right to have their relationships protected—and those protections can appropriately expand over time from domestic partnership to full marriage—because we are all human and humanity benefits when each and every aspect of it is secure.
Is the difference inconsequential? Consider that the vast majority of people we need to move toward acceptance are not gay. They do not hear equality arguments in the same familiar way that we do, but, they do respond to arguments based in the central theme of humanity. It reaches everyone because everyone has a connection to humanity, even the most rabidly anti-gay.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that we will not be able to change the minds of a good one-quarter of Americans, but if we can allow those in the middle to hear our words in a different and more meaningful way, we stand a far better chance of gaining in the polls when the time comes. According to the Empire State Pride Agenda’s recent legislative report card, there are 32 to 36 New York Assembly members who support full marriage rights for gay New Yorkers, 24 who oppose it, and 89 who are undecided. Shouldn’t we do everything we can to target those 89?
Reframing an issue does not mean rejecting all the good work that has come before, it means expanding on that work to reach more and more open ears. It means that previously closed ears may hear our words in a different way that might just move them enough to take a stand for liberty and equality.
The second broad principle we must incorporate is a true and active understanding of coalition-building. We need to take a stand for other minority groups, even those that are not yet in alignment with us. We need to show by our actions that liberty and equality are principles that apply not only to our community, but to all communities. If we show up at NAACP, AARP, and American Association of People With Disabilities (AAPD) events, to name a few, we show other communities that our liberty is their liberty. We create the space in which equality can thrive.
These two suggestions, reframing the marriage discussion and building coalitions with other minority groups, require one thing on our part—commitment. It requires the commitment to retool our talking points and to create new ones that encompass a liberty awareness. It requires us to get off our asses and go to a meeting every now and then that doesn’t have to do with just us. It requires patience, intelligence, cooperation, creativity, resilience, and persistence. Because if this work is only about “Just Us,” we don’t really deserve the “Justice” we are asking for, do we?
Anthony M. Brown is the executive director of The Wedding Party and heads up Nontraditional Family and Estates Law at the law firm of McKenna, Siracusano & Chianese. He can be reached at: Brown@msclaw.net.