WMC News & Features

Just Not Married: Fighting for Equality on Valentine’s Day

Lesbian and gay male couples are ready to step up their protest with creative new tactics—witness the action this morning in New York and see what lies ahead for marriage equality in 2010.

In 2009, the fight for marriage equality gained more U.S. victories in one year than over the previous decade. The momentum seems to be continuing into 2010 with the court challenge to Prop 8 in California, D.C.'s marriage win, and Hawaii's civil union vote. Also to the LGBT win column, add the hate crime legislation that was finally put into place at the federal level. And most recently, President Obama declared, “it’s the right thing to do” as he reaffirmed his commitment to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his State of the Union address, leading some to see a flicker of hope for the end of gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination in the United States.

However, progress in policy and public support can be fragile. Several setbacks at the very end of 2009 are causing some outraged LGBT groups to intensify their approach by mounting more aggressive direct action, starting with an ambush on local marriage bureaus across the country.

National Freedom to Marry Day today (Friday, February 12), part of Freedom to Marry Week, calls on LGBT couples to apply en masse for marriage licenses—expecting to be denied and subsequently offered domestic partnership or civil union forms, depending on the local law. In New York City, Queer Rising, a recently formed LGBT rights group hosting the event, is taking the protest further. “We’re trying to give confidence to the movement. It needs to take another step past the electoral tactics to civil disobedience and direct action,” says Spring Super, the group’s spokesperson. They want to “expose the hypocrisy of the marriage system in the United States. A lesbian and a gay man can marry each other with no question but same-sex couples cannot. So the idea that it is just for straight men and straight women is a farce.”

LGBT New Yorkers are newly energized by the recent gay marriage defeat in the state Senate. Though the Assembly had twice passed the bill, several senators who had supported the measure unexpectedly voted no in December. Cathy Marino-Thomas, communications director of Marriage Equality New York, thinks the decision to switch sides was a strategy upon entering an election year. It was not “a vote of conscience,” she said. “It was a political agreement.”

Local organizations like Queer Rising have formed all over the country in the wake of the original 2008 Prop 8 vote against lesbian and gay marriage rights. Leaders in the LGBT community have called the fight for marriage equality “our generation’s civil rights movement,” and believe that the driving force of the movement comes from the passion of real people fighting to live their lives with dignity. Marino-Thomas notes, “People that go out there and move the ball forward on marriage do it through their own personal experience. That's the thing our opponents don't understand. It's not based on a theory.”

The same message holds true as more victims of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discrimination come forward to tell their stories. President Obama’s lack of action on this and other issues had disappointed the LGBT community, given his original campaign promises. Now with his renewed pledge for progress this year, “LGBT groups remain cautiously confident that the president has introduced needed momentum around this repeal,” says Glennda Testone, former WMC vice president who is now executive director of the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. Following the president’s lead, she notes, “quite a few prominent individuals in the military and elsewhere are showing their support. There is, however, also a feeling that it is not necessary to take an entire year to study the potential effects of the repeal.” The president should move quickly, she says, “to remedy what has become a seriously negative experience for thousands of service members during a critical time for our country.”

To look at the big picture, making more headway on marriage rights could also advance other equity issues. As Marino-Thomas points out, “Marriage equality at a federal level would advance immigration rights for families as well.”

A major step in the right direction took place last month with the groundbreaking trial challenging Proposition 8 in California. Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the case, is expected to have a ruling in March. Regardless of the outcome, both sides will likely file an appeal and the case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, as Marino-Thomas sees it, “the question will become, can the highest court in the land rule fairly, based solely on the laws and principles set forth in our founding documents? Big question.”

For now, LGBT rights groups will continue the battle from the ground up, putting pressure on state governments. Considering both the recent wins and losses, Testone says “the tide is turning in this country towards viewing the granting of equal rights for all LGBT people as simply the right thing to do. Now some forty percent of Americans support marriage for gay couples, and more than fifty percent support civil unions. We can expect to see in 2010 marriage equality show up on more state-wide ballots as well as in more state legislatures.” Marino-Thomas agrees that the shift is all part of laying the right groundwork to move toward nationwide change. History shows us that “civil rights issues are generally slow moving,” she observes. “Prejudices run deep and often have a long history as well. However, once you begin to see this sort of shift in public opinion, equality begins to gain ground and win.”

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