In Gay Marriage Race, Slow & Steady May Be the Best Course
We all know what we want: full equality. Today, if possible. The history of the gay rights movement, post-Stonewall, however, may show another path -- that the "all or nothing" contingent of our movement ends up empty handed with no crumb. Or cookies for that matter.
Instead, we seem to be learning that working slowly, state-by-state, municipality-by-municipality, the approach to marriage equality that has come to be called "incrementalism" is working. Maybe not as fast as we’d like, but it is still happening.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the tortoise vs. hare approach was seen in President Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement that he now supports full marriage equality. The very word he used to express his opinions -- "evolve" -- shows that even the most progressive members of society may need to wrap themselves around the concept of same-sex marriage.
"President Obama for more than 500 days said he’s ’evolving’ on the issue of same-sex civil marriage equality," continued Badash. "Many Americans, whether or not they are conscious of it, are too. In time, marriage will mean exactly that: marriage, regardless of gender."
Evidence that other politicians - even those with strong ties to major religion - are evolving could be found in Washington State. In a spirited and impassioned speech, Gov. Chris Gregoire publicly supported legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington State during a January 4 press conference. A practicing Roman Catholic, she previously supported only efforts to expand the state’s current law on domestic partner rights for LGBT couples.
Gregoire did introduce the bill and helped push its passage through the State Legislature. Although the state’s LGBT population faces a campaign to rollback the law, it should be noted that, like Obama, Gregoire’s views had evolved on the matter.
"Some say domestic partnerships are the same as marriage," she said. "That’s a version of the discriminatory separate but equal argument of the past."
"Our gay and lesbian families face the same hurdles as heterosexual families-making ends meet, choosing what school to send their kids to, finding someone to grow old with, standing in front of friends and family and making a lifetime commitment," Gregoire said.
"For all couples," she added, "a state marriage license is very important. It gives them the right to enter into a marriage contract in which their legal interests, and those of their children, if any, are protected by well-established civil law."
But many marriage-equality advocates see civil unions and domestic partnerships as a separate-but-equal equivocating reminiscent of the notorious racial segregation laws that once permeated the Deep South. And, they point out, like those Jim Crow laws, the separation was anything but equal.
"Marriage is one of the most critical and important liberties in civil society. And for most of society -- even our opponents agree - family is the center of our lives," David Badash, founder and editor of The New Civil Rights Movement, told EDGE. "An incremental approach to family, to marriage equality -- usually beginning with state-sanctioned domestic partnerships or civil unions for same-sex couples, then ’graduating’ to full marriage equality -- is an inadequate remedy, because it forces members of the LGBT community to continue to be perceived as less-than equal; under domestic partnerships or civil unions, our relationship status is exactly that: less-than equal."
"Incrementalism is a tool that enables the majority to continue to hold socio-economic and emotional power over minorities, while maintaining their own status and while maintaining their egos. All Americans know equality is more American than ego, and separate is never equal," he said.
Josh Friedes, marriage equality director for Equal Rights Washington told EDGE, "Throughout much of the nation there has long been a nasty divisive and in my opinion counter- productive debate about the so called ’incremental approach’ to securing marriage equality which takes you to marriage via one or more steps, usually civil unions or domestic partnerships."
While it might be ideal to achieve legal equality in one fell swoop, historically it hasn’t ended up playing out that way for any social justice movement, at least in the United States.
Historically, groups of marginalized people have won acceptance as they have worked their way into mainstream America. While many blacks today scoff at the notion of each one of them having to be a role model, this was commonly accepted in the days of the Civil Rights movement.
These blacks (and Italians, Jews, Chinese and other hyphenated Americans before them -- and perhaps Muslims now) try to live by example. In states across the nation, domestic partnership laws and civil unions were enacted in lieu of marriage equality. The idea is, as time passes the general population will see that the "sky is falling" rhetoric of marriage equality opponents is unfounded and eventually lead to pro-marriage equality support. As well, they will see their partnered gay neighbors and gay parents and come to see them less as a threat to civilization and more as ... neighbors.
"Each state is different," says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "States have taken different paths toward marriage equality and even to attaining nondiscrimination protections. Sometimes in states where we have made gains, we are then faced with temporary setbacks that take away or block progress."
"This holds true for LGBT rights as well. Incremental gains are often made over a period of time that then lead to an even more wide-reaching success; this is the process of changing hearts and minds," said Carey. "Yet every step forward, every advance toward full legal equality, positively impacts the lives of LGBT people and their families. That’s why the Task Force has been on the ground year-in and year-out in Washington State and elsewhere working to create change for almost 40 years, with the ultimate goal being full equality and dignity for all."
One example of the work of changing attitudes is in Roman Catholics. Like Gregoire, the two most forceful governors to advocate for same-sex marriage have been New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, are both Roman Catholics, as have been several of the most prominent gay-rights supporters in Congress, such as the late Teddy Kennedy and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The church itself remains a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, as is seen in its activism in Minnesota to pass an anti-marriage ban. But other mainstream Christian denominations, such as Episcopalians, have made huge strides toward endorsing gay rights -- often including fully recognized unions.
Washington State’s Friedes believes that when we keep the focus on people rather than marriage you can’t argue with protecting people as quickly as possible. "To not do so is almost inhumane," he said.
"Conversely, we cannot fully protect people if they do not have the freedom to marry," he said. "I myself don’t like the term ’incremental.’ I think we took an evolutionary approach which allowed us to protect families as quickly as possible while creating the conversation to move forward toward marriage and beyond."
Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, the coalition working to keep marriage equality in Washington State, says, "You can’t argue with results."
"It is clear to me that the long conversation we have had with legislators, civic leaders and voters over the last decade was key to our success this year," he said.
Before marriage equality comes to America on a federal level, David Badash says our elected representatives "have a moral and civic duty to represent and legislate for all their constituents, including minorities, and that means making the sometimes tough choices to extend equality to all, because our families need protection today."
"Our families exist, and no law can make us go away," he said. "Lawmakers know, as all Americans know, that nothing is more American than equality. And half-hearted measures that offer something that’s ’almost like’ marriage have already been found insufficient, by the courts, and by constituents."