Upstate leaders focus on religion, patriarchy, immigration, and Democratic failings
On Wednesday, March 31, a panel discussion held at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center gave community members an opportunity to debate issues related to same-sex marriage with individuals in the forefront of the struggle in New York State.
Marriage Equality New York, a grassroots organization, co-sponsored the event with the Center.
Appearing on the panel, moderated by New York Times editor Patricia Cohen, were Rev. Kay Greenleaf and Rev. Dawn Sangrey, Unitarian Universalist ministers charged with criminal offenses for solemnizing the marriages of 13 same-sex couples who did not have licenses in New Paltz, New York on March 6; Robert Gottlieb, the ministers’ attorney; Nyack Mayor John Shields, who filed a lawsuit against the state of New York for violating his constitutional right to marry his partner, Bob Streams; and Billiam Van Roestenberg, a New Paltz resident who, along with his partner, Jeffrey McGowan, were the first of 25 same-sex couples whose marriages were solemnized in that upstate Ulster County village by Mayor Jason West on February 27.
The discussion was attended by approximately 100 community members, many of whom said they are registered domestic partners, have undergone commitment ceremonies, or were legally married in Canada. Several couples attended with toddlers in tow, the youngsters amusing themselves with toys while their parents listened and joined in the discussion.
After making brief introductory statements and fielding questions from Cohen, the panelists turned to questions from the audience. Among the topics broached were the roots of religious oppression of gays and lesbians; the separation of church and state; the history of marriage as a patriarchal institution; and the groundbreaking nature of the actions currently being pursued to achieve marriage equality.
“What’s happening now is much bigger than these two arrests and what [Mayor Shields] is doing in Nyack,” said Gottlieb. “It’s beyond control.”
Gottlieb said that any action that draws local or national attention to the struggle for same-sex marriage, even an effort to foreclose it, is a good thing.
“The reality is, and what I think all of you recognize is, it has gotten so powerful in Massachusetts… we now have just about everybody, even opponents, saying, ‘Well, we’re opposed to marriage but we’re really not opposed to civil unions,’” Gottlieb added. “Two or three months ago, none of them would have said that.”
Cohen cited the condemnation of same-sex marriage by some clerical groups.
“Where does this deep-rooted oppressive stance come from?” she asked the panel.
“I’m tired of religion being used as an excuse for oppression,” answered Sangrey, adding that it is a distortion of Christianity.
Van Roestenberg said he was always upset with “the hypocrisy of the clergy.”
“Each time I saw someone wearing a collar, if I saw a nun or a priest, I would get very disgusted,” he said. Ever since he got married, his attitude has changed, he said.
In an admission that some attendees found ironic, he said that he now says “under God” when he recites the Pledge of Allegiance, something he had purposely omitted for years.
Audience members pressed the panelists for further clarification on the role of religion in the debate.
“In this country there is a separation of church and state,” said one audience member. “Let’s keep it that way.”
He went on to say that marriage for all participants, regardless of gender combination, should be an institution entirely separate from religion, akin to the bill about to be proposed in the New York State Assembly by lesbian Manhattan Democrat Deborah Glick.
“I agree, the best way is to have a civil ceremony first and then if you want to have a religious ceremony after then, that’s your choice,” said Greenleaf.
Some audience members said they interpreted marriage as a sexist or heterosexist institution and questioned why it was a model that members of the panel were espousing.
The respondents all said that it was the federal rights and benefits that accompany civil marriage––that they felt all gays and lesbians are entitled to––for which they are fighting.
“Anything less is separate but equal,” said Sangrey.
Van Roestenberg offered a more personal perspective on the matter.
“I’m married now like I was not allowed to be with my other relationships and maybe if I had been married they would have lasted 20 years,” he said.
The issues facing binational couples was raised in strong terms by Halina Bendkowski, a German national in the audience whose partner, Lydia Stryk, is American. The couple has been obliged to live in Germany for the past several years, as their union is recognized under German law, giving Stryk the right to legal resident status in that country. Bendkowski said that they want to have the same right here in the U.S. She expressed concern that organizing for same-sex marriage at the state level will not acquire the federal endorsement couples in her position require.
“We are among the people who are not going to get anything from these lovely marriages,” she said. “Can we start thinking on a national level?”
“We have spoken about it, but it doesn’t make it into the media,” said Van Roestenberg, himself of Dutch origin, who said he and his partner initially planned to travel to the Netherlands to get legally married before West put the idea to them of doing it in New Paltz.
Another attendee said that she and her partner were planning to get married in Toronto.
“If we do this, how can we use this as a tool in this country?” she asked. “Get an attorney to determine what your rights are based on exactly where you live.”
The discussion turned heated when panelists began discussing whether gay marriage as a civil rights issue could be compared to the historic struggles of African Americans to defeat segregation and other de jure forms of discrimination.
“There is no comparison,” said Greenleaf. “Most of us have the same built-in privilege as straight, white people.”
She went on to say that African Americans have been battling discrimination for generations and that they have suffered violence because of their race to a degree that “most white gays and lesbians cannot even begin to comprehend.”
“I am not sure I agree,” said Gottlieb, outlining that without marriage equality, gays and lesbians, regardless of race, face a level of discrimination that significantly limits their rights and ability to participate in society.
“The difference is that because gays are white, some gays are white,” Gottlieb said, “they have been able to hide from those who would attack them. That’s the only difference, I think. They’ve been able to get away without being physically attacked.”
“I understand what Kay is saying and I agree with her,” said Shields. “At the same time… the best way to maintain power is to divide those people who are oppressed. I’m not going to fight with anybody who’s oppressed. We are all being oppressed and we’re in this together and we’ve got to recognize and stand together.”
The panel concluded with a discussion of the upcoming presidential election.
“There’s actually an organized counter attack that’s being led not just by Republicans but by a lot of Democrats,” said one audience member. “The two people in Massachusetts who are sponsoring the legislation to ban gay marriage are Democrats. So my question is, for a long time the gay movement has had pretty strong ties with the Democratic Party. Given that so many of the attacks are coming from Democrats, maybe we should have a slightly different strategy.”
“I agree with you about many members of the [Democratic] Party,” responded Shields. “I do not forget that Bill Clinton stabbed us in the back by signing the DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]. At the same time, remember the important issue is that the next president will appoint new [Supreme Court] judges. Who do you want appointing judges, George Bush or John Kerry?”