Most groups that fight for marriage rights make every effort to present an image of marriage appealing to mainstream America. We present what is essentially a nuclear family, only gay, with parents and children living middle class lives that we hope middle class America will be able to sympathize with.
This not a complete or accurate representation of what marriage is to our community. There certainly are a great many couples who want marriage because they want precisely that kind of life, and that kind of family.
But, I think it is time that we re-examine what we are trying to achieve by winning marriage, to ensure that everyone understands that they have a stake in our eventual victory. It’s not right to fight a civil rights battle while being exclusionary in our tactics. And it is not the right way to speed us on our way to victory.
What are we trying to achieve?
We are trying to protect the weakest in our community, who live in uncertainty, under a constant threat of losing what they value most because they are not the right kind of family. That’s all. We’re not trying to establish a new order of Stepford Queers, all prettied up the better to blend in with the straight people. We’re trying to fight homophobia, which is still pervasive, still deadly, and whose virulence we see in the nasty fighting tactics of our opponents in the marriage battle.
We’re trying to expand our choices of how to live out our relationships.
This is a goal that can and should be embraced by everyone in our community, whether or not they personally want to marry, and whatever their political leanings—however radical, conservative, sex-positive, or feminist. However, the flip side of that coin is that we need to do a better job of embracing all these different ways of being queer in our battle for marriage.
I think it is worth remembering that the strongest weapon we have in our arsenal is also one of the oldest, and one of the most radical—coming out, which is not just a matter of saying “I’m gay.” Coming out is not finished until you are living, in public, the gay life that you choose. This means that in order to take advantage of this powerful weapon, we have to include all kinds of queerness.
We have to change how we organize in our community, and break down barriers that separate us by race and class, by lifestyle and sexstyle, by political belief system, and by alphabet (L and G and B and T and Q and I, and so on). This is how we will win marriage, and become stronger as a people in the process.
But what about the claims that marriage itself is incompatible with some ways of being queer? It’s simply not true.
Government-licensed civil marriage is huge set of legal structures, most of which are designed to remove outside pressures that might compromise or destroy the ability of a couple, or a family, to stay together. It provides the security without which the words freedom and choice become meaningless.
It is the most vulnerable and marginalized among us that need marriage most—such as people who, without full access to Social Security or veterans’ benefits can’t afford food.
People lose their homes because they can’t marry. An excellent film that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Tying the Knot,” tells the story of two people, each of whom lost the person who would have been their spouse. Sam, the survivor of one couple, was bequeathed the home and farm on which he and his husband Earl had lived for more than 20 years, in Earl’s will. A cousin of Earl’s challenged the will, and Sam lost. Though he has one last chance to appeal, as of today, the home Sam and Earl shared belongs to someone they barely knew.
I’ve been with my husband for seven years. He travels back to his home country for about six months each year, because he’s on a tourist visa, and that’s due to the fact that I can’t marry him. He is unable to work because of his visa status, so when I lost my job, we survived only on the support of my family.
People lose their children because they can’t marry. Children lose their right to have access to both parents. People are excluded from healthcare.
Whatever your way of being queer, and whatever your politics, we can’t allow this to continue to happen. We get so used to hearing catch phrases like “the rights and obligations of marriage”, or “over 1,000 rights and privileges” that we forget sometimes what they mean. Each legal right is an opportunity for us to live better lives. Each one denied is one more way we can be pushed to the edge, and maybe over the edge.
But could we gain the same protections in other ways? Not at all.
Individuals can’t do it for themselves. It took Congress’ General Accounting Office months to determine what federal rights and obligations relate to civil marriage, and that number has grown over several years from 1,049 to 1,138. In New York State, the best estimate of state rights and obligations is more than 700. It is inconceivable that any LGBT couple could identify the full range of legal protections they need to provide for themselves in the absence of marriage. A piecemeal approach will never have an endpoint.
Marriage Equality New York is an all-volunteer, non-partisan organization that fights for marriage, and marriage only, and as a grassroots organization, we dedicate ourselves to building the broadest coalition possible.
We do work that requires us to be careful and conservative in our approach, such as our lobbying in Albany. But we also work on projects like this Sunday’s Wedding March, which will be a failure if it doesn’t help bring together people from every part of our community, helping to forge common ground on this issue.
We’re not the only organization that is fighting for marriage and it’s time for everybody to join or support some organization that’s working on marriage. There’s only one outcome if we don’t work together on this, and it’s one none of us can afford: we’ll lose.
David Thompson is co-chair of Marriage Equality New York, which will celebrate same-sex marriage with a Wedding March across the Brooklyn Bridge on Sunday, May 23 at 11 a.m., beginning in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn and ending with a rally at Battery Park. For more information, visit marriageequalityny.org.