Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Matter of Civil Rights

The idea that marriage for lesbians and gay men was something to work for entered my life as a living breathing entity when my friend Ninia Baehr whom I meet when she was began working with me at Eve's Garden in NYC. We became fast friends bonding over a myriad of issues including the research for her Masters thesis; we talked about the interviews for the project while shipping dildoes across the country. When her thesis was published she listed me in the acknowledgments which touched me greatly. She moved to Hawaii, I moved to Massachusetts but we stayed in contact (imagine it, we managed that without the benefits of email and online social networking!).

In late 1990 or maybe it was early 1991 I received a news clipping from her about her latest project - suing the state of Hawaii for the
right to marry. Initially the ruling was in the couples' (there were three couples) quest. Ninia and I had many conversations over the years about this case and the ideals behind it. She wasn't sure she wanted to marry her then partner, Genora, but the fact that she didn't have the option rankled her. I agreed with her. As the case dragged she and Genora moved to to the mainland landing in Maryland. The two of them traveled doing what she called "dog and pony shows" to raise money and awareness. I drove to Boston to surprise her at one of these shindigs back in 1996, I think it was and supported her. Sometime between when this started in 1990 and before it ended in 1999, Ninia and Genora's relationship dissolved which I knew about but needed to be kept quiet in public. It was challenging and incredibly stressful for Ninia to keep doing these ''shows" while separating from her partner but her committment to the right to marry never waivered.

The world of marriage in the United States for lesbian, gays, bisexuals, and transgender/genderqueer folks has changed a lot since I received that clipping in 1991. The world of marriage in the United States for a lot of populations have changed a great deal. African Americans could not marry one another during slavery. There were laws in various place that prevented marriages betwee
n caucasians and asians as well. In the scheme things marriage for LBGT folks doesn't seem to be such a far off.

Except in many ways it is because it seems that a lot of people don't want to share the word "marriage". Civil unions are okay, dome
stic partnerships are acceptable, but marriage? It seems that is what rankles. Civil unions and domestic partnerships are nice but relatively useless when compared with marriage which is gifted with state and federal benefits galore. I have personally experienced the benefits of marriage and the limitations of domestic partnerships; the ease of being covered by benefits on a spouse's work insurance and the financial hell of trying to use the education benefit for my "partner". I worked the difference to my benefit when living with my partner by claiming her as a "tenent" in order to maximize my taxes since my home now qualified as a rental.

So what's the real problem here. The problem, to me, is that marriage as it stands in this country marriage is a dual entity, a clear blend o
f church and state which stands in stark contradiction to the proclaimation that the two should be kept separate. Yes there are those who do civil marriages (which I did, and many of my friends have), there are friends who have done spiritual unions and not filed for the other piece (which I have also done because I had no choice as I could not legally marry in Massachusetts at that time). But why should they be linked as they seem to be and have been historically. Sure one can go to city hall and walk out with all the attending benefits and responsibilities but why call it marriage? In Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Maine, California, Washington there exists varying degrees of marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships granting varying levels of state benefits. Well that's fine if you never ever move and are a tax resistor who doesn't file federal taxes.
If everyone had to go to city hall to file for a civil
union in order to get the benefits handed out to those brave, foolish, hopeful enough to believe in legally tangling their lives with someone else and leave marriage to the spiritual or celebratory union to be held in the anytime with or without the legal piece. How hard would that be?

In Loving v. Virginia the right for interracial marriage was taken up by the ACLU as a civil rights matter. The decision says, in part:
Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.
Change the statement around to fit the LBTG population and see whether you think it still works; I do. The decision goes on to say:
There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.
Limiting marriage to heterosexuals does nothing but maintain that only different gendered people can marry. To what end? Who is protected? Is heterosexual marriage worthy of supremacy?

Proposition 8 in California has unleased a n
ationwide response, mostly of anger and hurt. Melissa Etheridge has written that if she is not granted all the rights of any other citizen than the state of California should not expect her to pay taxes. She has a point. Today there were demonstrations throughout the country to express the disappointment, the anger, to make clear that we will not be silent. Though California's proposition was not the only state in this year's election to pass anti-marriage bills - Arizona, Arkansas and Florida also did, California has borne the weight of the LBGT's outrage because of marriage was possible and this is the first strike in moving to change the laws.

The other day I posted my notion for handling civil unions/marriages to a primarily liberal, aware community that I am part of and was reminded that such folks are unaware of the limitations of civil unions, that there could be another way to do things. It is up to those us who are personally involved because of we are not straight, or those who love people who are not straight to make clear that this is not about "marriage" but about civil rights, about equality.

Personally I don't know that I would take adv
antage of getting the civil right associated by legally committing to a partner but I am damn certain that I should get to make that decision and not the government.
I'm not certain this piece is as clear, or on target as I would like but I hope it inspires my readers to think about this issue and go find better articles on the subject.

1 comment:

Ginny said...

I can't believe in this society that this is still such a struggle. We have evolved in lots of ways, but for some reason this issues still stops otherwise open minded people. I could go on and on about this one.