Each day, LGBT people in the South face a set of moral choices. Will we be defined by the fundamental truths of our lives or by state laws that regard us as second-class citizens? Take me and my wife, Meghann. We are legally married and yet North Carolina, where we live, regards us as legal strangers. Through acts both mundane and intimate, we choose to resist these laws and the antigay animus they breed — from listing each other as spouses on every form we fill out to holding hands as we walk down the sidewalk. Sometimes this is effortless. Sometimes, when strangers’ eyes track us, it’s hard. In these moments, Meghann’s hand on my back bolsters me.
For me, it feels clear — and clearer each day — that resistance is the way forward, not just in our private lives but also in the public square. Laws cannot regulate our capacity to love any more than they can our ability to hope or dream. Laws that seek to do so are immoral because they degrade our humanity. They are unconstitutional because they violate our basic freedoms. And yet these laws remain on the books in every Southern state, causing harm each day.
Growing numbers of people across the South are finding the courage to stand up to such laws by taking public action. Since the We Do Campaign launched two years ago, I have stood with more than 80 LGBT couples as they have requested — and been denied — marriage licenses in their hometowns across the South, from small rural towns in Mississippi to cities like Charlotte, N.C. To watch LGBT people stand at the marriage license counter, many with their children at their side, is to witness courage firsthand. In the face of a legal system that denies our humanity and tells us we have no right to even approach this counter, these families are expressing powerful truths: We are human, we are equal, this is our home, and we have a fundamental right to marry.
As we continue to grow the We Do Campaign, we are now actively seeking a public official in the South who will stand up with us and issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple as an act of conscience. Marriage license offices in New Mexico and Pennsylvania have recently started doing this, and in years past it has happened in California and New York as well. In Pennsylvania, Montgomery County Register of Wills Bruce Hanes has said of his choice, “I firmly believe that I’m on the right side of history.”
Can this happen in the South? We have contacted marriage license offices in more than 600 counties to pose this question. There may be a Bruce Hanes somewhere in our region. Or it may well be that the power of these discriminatory laws is so great that even those public officials who support marriage equality — and they exist — feel that the risk of acting on this belief is too great.
Last week, we stood at the Register of Deeds Office in Forsyth County, N.C., with Diana and Li. They are college sweethearts who reunited as adults, and theirs is a love story decades in the making. “We’re asking you to see us as human beings who love each other,” Li said at the counter. The clerk paused, holding the couple’s gaze, and then said, “According to N.C. law, I cannot issue this license.” Li and Diana nodded and were, for a moment, still.
I do not know what the clerk felt in that moment. I know my own heart broke a little, as it always does when denials occur, which is to say in the instant of witnessing discrimination. Moments like this crystallize a lifetime of being told that we are less than and of then assembling within oneself the resources to keep going.
But we can’t be afraid of being denied again and again, just as we can’t be afraid to ask others to stand with us in taking moral — and public — action to recognize the fundamental humanity and dignity of LGBT people.
Our task is to put pressure on laws that are morally broken and thus, ultimately, fragile. When we show up at marriage license counters across the South, we are acting from a lineage of civil rights organizing that focuses on resisting unjust laws in the locus of their enforcement. This grassroots work is a complementary strategy to the legal challenges currently advancing in federal courts.
By directly confronting a discriminatory law, we make visible a reality that LGBT people live with daily and that more people need to understand. In North Carolina, Amendment One bans recognition of any relationship between a same-sex couple. In South Carolina, it is illegal to discuss homosexuality in schools. Such laws can be traced to a spiritually violent theology that teaches that homosexuality is an abomination and LGBT people sinners. This persecuting system exerts continual pressure on those it targets — LGBT people. It puts pressure on us to hide who we truly are, who we truly love, how we truly conduct our lives. It pressures us to hide our joy, our humanity, our vulnerability. It denies us basic freedoms and protections in the most critical spheres of life — family, employment, housing, health care.
Here in the South, the system counts on us not showing up. It counts on us staying closeted. It counts on us waiting silently and for an indeterminate period of time for full equality, as other parts of our nation race toward that horizon.
You live with this system and these laws, even though you know in your heart they’re morally wrong. You endure, even though you know that these laws violate the most fundamental principles of the Constitution. And then one day, you wake up and you just can’t do it anymore.
The laws we seek to change are made by individuals. They are enforced by individuals. And ultimately they will be changed by individuals. That spark of the human spirit that says I will do what I know to be right is one of the most powerful forces that exists. It has changed our nation before. I believe it will do so again.
REV. JASMINE BEACH-FERRARA is a minister in the United Church of Christ and the Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, and a North Carolina native. She has worked on LGBT rights campaigns since 2004 and has published a series of articles in The Democratic Strategist and The Huffington Post about strategy in the LGBT movement. Her first collection of short stories, Damn Love, was published in May.