As June arrives and PRIDE celebrations begin I like to take inventory of my impressions and thoughts over the past years. Much like President Obama, my ideas on gay marriage have been evolving.
As an out lesbian who identifies as both femme and queer the question of marriage equality, or gay marriage as it is referred to in the popular press, has never been easy one. Marriage often seems like the wrong institutional platform to use a springboard for civil rights. As a flawed institution steeped in antiquated gender and sexual hierarchies, marriage seemed little more than a hopelessly out-of-touch and antiquated ideal to me. I just couldn’t understand the importance or primacy of marriage for the LGBT community. Why not take on LGBT poverty, homelessness, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” or discrimination in housing, education and employment instead of marriage? Why not address the issue of bullying and the alarming rate of suicide among LGBT youth? Why marriage and why now?
Over the past ten years I have watched (and participated in) battles for relationship recognition take place all over the country. Some of these battles were heated and ugly, such as Proposition 8 in California. Others seemed to sneak up and gain acceptance almost peacefully by comparison, such as Iowa being among the first states to pass a marriage equality law. Within the past two weeks, I have had the pleasure of knowing the President and Vice President support marriage equality and the anguish learning that the National Organization for Marriage has decided to run an anti-marriage campaign in Baltimore, my hometown. Maryland, as one of the battleground states in the upcoming election cycle, will be holding a referendum on marriage and equality.
My evolving feelings on gay marriage run a schizophrenic gambit of fear and delight.
Vice President Biden and President Obama coming out (pun intended) in support of same-sex marriage is an important for me philosophically and emotionally. I am relishing the rare moment of being seen as a fully participating member of society complete with rights, obligations and privileges.
I have felt this way just once before. In November of 2005, as a resident of Maine, I woke up on November 9th and discovered that the tide had changed. LGBT Mainers were granted civil rights in the areas of housing, credit, employment and public accommodations for the first time. After a 28 year struggle, progress was made. This was a joyous experience for me. I awoke breathing clearer air. This different air allows me comfort and safety that I previously did not know. I woke up a full citizen in Maine. I woke up feeling safer and more protected.
That feeling ended up being somewhat isolated and fleeting for me and the rest of LGBT American. Despite the huge victory in 2005, Maine remains the only state where LGBT civil rights (protections in housing, education and public accommodations) were put to a vote and NOT stripped away completely or weakened to the point of ineffectiveness.
Just this week, a federal appeal court ruled DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional. Six states and DC now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. A sea change is occurring with regards to marriage and relationship recognition and it is incredibly exciting.
Clearly, President Obama and I aren’t the only ones who have evolving ideas about marriage. My initial objections about the viability of marriage as a platform for civil rights centered on concerns for the issues that would be left behind or underfunded because of the huge drain in resources battles for marriage equality would create. While some of this is no doubt true, I have come to understand that struggle for marriage equality is key piece of combating the bullying of LGBT youth and LGBT youth suicide. The struggle for marriage equality is deeply rooted in sense of social justice, fairness and equality. These three ideals are key instruments in dismantling oppression and bullying that too often leads to suicide, and self harm. LGBTQA youth are living at the crossroads of marriage equality and bullying.
Opponents of marriage equality are nothing more than well-heeled bullies. They come into schoolyard (or courtroom, place of business or worship) and through their weight around. By having the loudest voice and the lion’s share of resources these bullies are able to beat back their opponents into submission. Some of these bullies are open and vicious in their attacks, like Fred Phelps. Others are more subtle slyly hiding behind innuendo and lies. These insidious bullies, such as James Dobson and other Focus on the Family members cry religious freedom the way Peter cried wolf in an attempt leave the status quo firmly in place. It is very telling that Dobson’s group fights anti-bullying and education measures with the same voracity that they fight against marriage equality. Bullies need targets and scapegoats to feel powerful. Imagine if LGBTQA youth were protected from bullying in schoolyards and classrooms. The bullies would have one less target and an entire generation of LGBTQA youth would have a much better shot at graduating, continuing their educations, starting careers and families and become productive and fully integrated members of society. Who knows, perhaps they will even meet, fall in love and decide to marry the partner of their dreams. Quite simply the bullies can’t allow that to happen. The Bullies need to retain their power and privilege at any cost.
I too have evolved. I used to tell myself that coming out to myself was by far the hardest step. In many ways, that is still true. The extended personal journey that led to my self-awareness and acceptance of my lesbian identity was difficult. I struggled internally long before I ever decided I could manage my identity externally. The struggle seemed to be worth the angst, guilt and denial. When it was over I had won a mighty battle against myself. I had fought my own Goliath and succeeded. I thought that my process was complete. Little did I know that coming out is a life-long process.
Every time I meet new people, attend a social function or organizational meeting, I have to decide if it is safe enough for me to come out. Will the people in this space accept my entire identity? Will my sexual orientation change a stranger’s facial expression from open and welcoming to shut-down and hostile? Will my coming out as a lesbian prevent my full participation in this group? These are the questions I ask, and each time I do I have to weigh the risks and rewards of being an out lesbian. This is what coming out is like to me. It is a constant ebb and flow of highly personal decisions in highly changing times.
While working on the campaign to protect civil rights for LGBT citizens in Maine I attended a public hearing held by the state legislature on the impending legislation. In a large hearing room in Augusta several thousand supporters and an equal number of opponents gathered to give testimony. Supporters of the legislation were highly visible in the room. Each of us was wearing bright neon colored name tag with the bills ID number, LD 1196, printed on. In a packed standing-room-only space Maine’s citizen each stood up and told stories about their experiences with discrimination, harassment and violence. Each side was given equal time pro, then con, then pro then con. I was sitting on a window ledge in the back of the room. An older gentleman wearing the black suit and collar of a Priest stood up to speak. As he voiced his opposition to the legislation he became more and more agitated. He began to make accusations against the LGBT community. From my vantage point I could see the people’s faces in the audience. The more harshly the man spoke the more ashen and pinched my friends expressions became. Each time he opened his mouth it was as if a green poisonous cloud escaped and sucked all the air from the room. This man went so far as to compare LGBT individuals to the terrorists that flew the planes on 9/11. The audience gasped at this outrageous lie given as testimony.
The Sergeant at Arms, hearing enough of this twaddle, interrupted the Priest and asked him to back up his statements. Immediately air and light rushed back into the room. LD 1196 supporters looked at each other in relief. Finally, his ridiculous tirade interrupted and challenged the Priest stammered and back peddled in an attempt to soften his earlier lies. I genuinely believe that had he been allowed the Priest would have gone even further in his wild accusations against LGBT folks. This man would have gone on forever had he been allowed to proceed unchecked. In a flash I suddenly understood bullying and intimidation differently.
Bullies power and authority rests in their belief that they will be able to intimidate, lie and do harm to others without opposition or challenge. As demonstrated by my experience, bullies only stop bullying when they are challenged or interrupted. Activists, partners, couples and allies fighting for marriage equality are each challenging the system. On a daily basis they interrupt the loud oppressive voices attempting to silence and erase LGBT full participation as citizens and human beings.
As I continue to grow and evolve as an activist, queer, feminist I expect that my perspective will again change. It is my hope that I will continue to challenge and interrupt bullying and oppression in as many was as possible.