Revolution #154, February 1, 2009

A Conversation on Gay Marriage

“This is about changing very deep assumptions...”

The following was submitted by a reader:

On election day, November 4, 2008, Proposition 8 was passed in California which outlaws equal marriage rights for gay people. Similar propositions were also passed in Florida and Arizona, and a measure was passed in Arkansas that bars gay couples from adopting children.

Recently I had a conversation with two close friends in Massachusetts about what it means to ban legal protections for gay relationships, and how they see the passage of Proposition 8 and these other measures. I wanted to share some excerpts of their comments with the readers of Revolution newspaper.

Gillian: I have been doing civil rights work for so long, the issues are so complex around human sexuality. Many people don’t understand the importance of civil rights based on sexual orientation. How do you connect with them? This issue is shrouded in privacy, people think, why do you want to put your private stuff out in public? There is a problem because the issues of civil rights around sexual orientation and reproductive autonomy [the right to abortion] have been defined legally as privacy rights. This was how women’s right to choose was legally established. This makes it difficult to make a claim on public resources.

Some people think of homosexuality as “conduct” or “behavior,” but you know you are gay whether or not you have had a gay sexual experience. It’s the same as people who know they are straight even if they never had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Men in this society don’t think they have a gender, and white people think they don’t have a color. They believe they are the “norm.”

We are terrible at understanding human sexuality in this country. People get stuck in different places. Do people have no understanding of a gay person other than the sex act? Are we only talking about sex? Some people have religious beliefs that have never been challenged. Some agree with how the Supreme Court defined rights in Bowers vs. Hardwick, which is the famous Georgia sodomy case. The Supreme Court defined the issue as whether there’s a constitutional right to “gay sodomy.” That is not the issue. The issue is, do all consenting adults have a right to have sex in private. The sodomy laws of Georgia outlawed sodomy for all people, but the only people arrested and prosecuted were gay people. So the issue wasn’t gay sodomy, but does the state have the right to regulate your behavior in the bedroom. Most people would be surprised to know that birth control was outlawed for all people not that long ago (and there are moves to re-impose those bans).

One way to understand is to tell stories.

The majority of gay people were born into straight families, raised in this culture like everyone else, with the same needs as everyone else. We are as different from the next person as a straight person is different from the person next to them. Straight people have a range of different beliefs and choices, and so do gay people. Our lives are as complex and difficult and challenging as anyone else’s.

Most straight people have never had to examine what marriage is about, they can take for granted that when they fall in love and find the person they want to share their life with, the state and the church and their family will be behind them. They don’t understand that these are choices and laws and policies that were created over time. The institution of marriage and “holy matrimony” and the conversation about all this needs to continue to change as people change.

Shannon: People believe that marriage existed before civilization and it has always been between one man and one woman, that Adam and Eve were it and it’s been unchanging ever since. They don’t know what marriage really is, that marriage only came to exist so men had property rights over women and over procreation. Marriage was born out of this and people have fantasized and glorified it as some “father knows best” nuclear family thing.

Gillian: Polygamy might have made some sense when so many women and children died in childbirth, and it also had to do with consolidating wealth. But as the needs of society have changed, so has the institution of marriage. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that we began to view marriage as a partnership of equals. Until then, it used to be even in the U.S. that when a woman married, you lost your separate legal identity, your property, your children. Women disappeared into the legal entity of their husband who had the legal right to control his wife’s property and beat and rape her. The history of marriage has been through many iterations, mainly supporting patriarchal society.

Then the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement fought for more legal autonomy, and marriage has changed to where it would be unrecognizable to people 100 years ago.

The reason equal marriage rights are important isn’t because the gay and lesbian movement believes the institution of marriage is a great thing that will make us great people. But it is the only way to have legal protections that support the person closest to you. In the U.S., everything about families has been privatized: parental rights, support of older parents, property, family leave from work, health insurance, bereavement—all these things are attached to marriage. This is not the way it had to be and in many countries there is more support for the family unit in different forms—single parents, stay-at-home dads, things that don’t depend on marriage. Health care, childcare aren’t available easily or affordable in this country unless you are married. These have been public policy decisions about how we care for the people most important to us, through marriage.

As long as this is the case, gay and lesbian people as a matter of simple justice cannot be denied access to this institution. Their relationships are just as important to themselves and to society as anyone else’s. Lots of people don’t understand this about the benefits of marriage and how easy it is once you are married to take care of the people you need to take care of.

Shannon: Someone might say, “So? You’re not a heterosexual couple, why should you have those benefits as well?” Growing up in my very conservative family, I believed gay people don’t deserve those rights, and that I didn’t deserve those rights as a gay person. I lived closeted and below the radar, thinking I was going to be disowned. I should have realized that would have been a good thing! But I feared this and played a neutral role. It was easy through college because I could be responsible, have my job, take care of my obligations to my parents and my siblings, and my life didn’t matter to my family.

Later, when my partner was very ill, it made me realize what I was missing although I didn’t vocalize or ask for it. I would be at work and if one of my coworkers had a family problem, everyone would be concerned and ask them, “Are you ok?” I never said what was going on in my life and I remember thinking, wow, that’s kind of neat, how cool that people are concerned. What I was enduring was hard and I didn’t have that.

I began to watch people get married, have children, and there’s support. It’s not just how people kill themselves to have a big wedding. But it’s how the relationship is open and there’s support on both sides. For me, having girlfriends along the way, if I did something stupid and cheated on her, no one knew but me and my girlfriend, the consequences were quiet. If I had had the support of my family, someone might have said, stop being a moron! Or there would be someone to talk to and ask advice. I wouldn’t have had to go through so much trial and error with things that took so much longer to figure out.

Still, I didn’t care that much because I never had or expected support. When my partner was dying, I was with her through the whole thing, at the doctor appointments, everything. The hospital and doctors were very open, we were always viewed and treated as a couple, and this was shockingly nice to me. We made funeral plans and bought the casket together, so the funeral director knew us. My partner died a month later at home. This is what we had hoped and planned for. We both came from families without a lot of support, and we did not call them. Instead, our closest friends were there. It was early in the morning, and I called the funeral home and the director wasn’t in yet. They said, “Where is the next of kin?” and I said, “I am” and they said, “No you’re not, we need a family member to call.” So we had to make many phone calls and finally the hospice nurse intervened and got them to come. We waited for three hours for them to come and take her away.

We had gone the distance, we had done all the responsible things to situate things and to plan. My partner worked for a law firm and we had covered everything. There should have been every safeguard, and still this happened. This is real. You can deal with people calling you names, but something like this is important, and to have that kind of discrimination.

Gillian: No heterosexual widowed spouse would have gone through that in any funeral home in this country—where the funeral home would have refused to talk to them.

Shannon: After that was done, it was a blip on my radar. Still, I didn’t want marriage rights. Later, when I met Gillian and the marriage thing came up, I thought, we don’t need this. Then it all clicked, why this is important to fight for. We have lives just like everyone else.

Gillian: The two couples who sued for marriage rights in Massachusetts also have compelling stories.

Hillary and Julia had a baby. They had been together twenty years before they sued to marry. They did everything they could with lawyers to protect each other and their daughter who was about to be born. They made legal wills, guardianships, health care proxies.

Then it was a difficult pregnancy and Julia was rushed to the hospital at the end of her pregnancy and the baby was born prematurely. Hillary was with her when the baby was born, the baby was taken to ICU. Hillary left Julia in the ER to go check on the baby. They had rushed to the hospital without the health care proxies, and the people in the ICU nursery wouldn’t let Hillary see her daughter. Then when she came back to see her partner, they wouldn’t let her see her either. So Hillary was in the hospital with the two most important people in her life in a medical emergency, and she couldn’t see them until a friend went to their house and brought the health care proxy.

Then David Wilson, his partner died young. David is a Black man and his partner was white. They had been together ten or fifteen years, they both worked. David came home late one day and his partner had died of a heart attack on his way from the car to the house. David found him lying in the driveway and called 911 while trying to resuscitate him. The police came and they tried to arrest David. They put him in handcuffs. His white neighbors had to come out and vouch for him before the police would let him be.

David met his current husband through a widowers support group. They were the first same-sex couple to marry in Massachusetts.

This was like Loving v. Virginia all over again. It took until 1967 to strike down all the remaining laws in this country preventing marriage between Black and white people, and that decision was Loving v. Virginia. Now we have broken both barriers, and when equal marriage for gay people came to Massachusetts, David and his partner were first.

We’ve had equal marriage rights in Massachusetts for four years now. What amazes me about Proposition 8 in California and the ballot measures in the other states is that it’s as if Massachusetts doesn’t exist, they continue to demonize gay people and talk about our marriages being wrong and against the natural order. We have living experience, all the evidence comes in that it’s good that people can get married rather than spending money on lawyers to establish the rights marriage gives you. You are not constantly struggling and living under the fear that you can lose everything and not be there when your children or your partner need you. Eight thousand couples have married, we can see how this works. Who gets married and why? Three thousand got married in the first year, they were mostly long-time couples, they had been together 10, 20, 30 years. They are no threat to anyone, they have lived their lives peacefully and with great generosity. Many have health problems at their age and it is concerning not to be able to be married going into old age together. So they can have peace of mind.

Shannon: One of the most shocking things was meeting Gillian and she supports the civil rights of Black people. I didn’t really know Black people until I was in college because of my stupid upbringing. I heard Gillian’s stories and met her friends and their struggles. What was hardest for me through the struggle for equal marriage rights was seeing Black people not wanting gay people to have rights, people feeling our suffering was not comparable to theirs.

Gillian: Many Black leaders support gay rights. And there was also a coalition of Black leaders in Massachusetts who organized against gay marriage. There were Black legislators who got up and said, “If you’ve never been told to sit in the back of a bus, you have no claim to civil rights.” I grew up through the civil rights movement, I read Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, I knew who the Black Panther Party was, Huey Newton and Angela Davis, these were my heros growing up. I assumed all I did on behalf of women’s rights and gay civil rights was the natural progression of civil rights struggles.

Shannon: This was what I was thinking about. Thank god marriage rights did not go to a referendum in Massachusetts. We move into this presidential election in 2008. Obama becomes the nominee. It did not surprise me that Proposition 8 was passed. I knew there was not a big surge of support for equal marriage among Black people in Massachusetts. Given the economy, the fact that people are angry, that shit hasn’t been going right—people feel, I’m hurting, this is the first time we have someone to vote for as a Black person, I don’t want to give gays rights. I was very disappointed.

Gillian: It’s complex. People said it was impossible in California to know what you were voting for on the ballot, the ballot was confusing. Equal marriage had existed there for only three months when the referendum happened. If there had been a popular vote here after three months, the result might have been the same.

Shannon: People were scared here when Proposition 8 passed. GLAD [Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders] said they had never in history seen the amount of money poured into this that they saw in California.

Gillian: Lies can get traction when you don’t have real information, this is a problem I fear in California. White people also voted to overturn our rights there, not just Black people.

Two lessons people take out of being part of a group that was once oppressed. A Jewish person said to me, “How dare you defame the memory of the Holocaust by saying gay people were also killed in the concentration camps?” For some Jewish people this diminishes their suffering. I have heard Irish people say, “Since we were discriminated against for so long, it’s our chance now to keep out whoever we want from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” Now there are Black people who say, “We suffered for so long, for you to say you suffer diminishes our suffering.”

Some of the strongest supporters for gay rights have been Jewish reform groups, some Black secular and religious leaders, Irish groups. But this is a mistake to think suffering is so unique. Gay people are oppressed in different ways than Jewish people, Black people, Latino people, disabled people. But it’s still oppression.

Shannon: The biggest argument from Black people is that they can’t hide but we can. This is really even worse. I’m still gay, whether I tell you or not. So I can make myself less real or important to the world. If you are gay, you can hide out front. Being able to hide was a bigger detriment to me. If I hadn’t hidden at some points, I might have been fighting for my rights earlier.

Gillian: Some Black people say, we can’t change but you are looking for protection for conduct you can change. I say, we feel we are born gay, it was not a choice. We wouldn’t choose a precarious, dangerous life, and we are still in danger because of sexual orientation.

Shannon: Do you believe I woke up one day and decided to piss off my family and fuck with them so much that they would disown me, that my brother claims I gave my mother a stroke? Why wouldn’t I have just committed suicide? I would have chosen anything else, I am 40 years old and have not enjoyed this.

Gillian: All of us born into catholic, evangelical, and most Black families, risk losing support when we are honest about who we are.

The struggle for women’s rights and for gay rights are very closely related. This is about changing very deep assumptions about gender and human nature, and the political and societal structures that reinforce these assumptions are very deep. Those who can succeed and have power are white, straight males and those who share their values. The first waves of women who have been successful in government and business have been just like the men, they had a special role to be just like the men. Clarence Thomas is the second Black Justice on the Supreme Court (after Thurgood Marshall, who was on the Supreme Court from 1967-1991), and Clarence Thomas has a special responsibility not to do more for Black people than the system wants him to do. This is why so many of the gay people who have succeeded in society are closeted Republicans!! This is what needs to be changed, so women and gay people and oppressed people have access to power and institutions that are part of human civilization and make them fair for everyone.

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