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Marriage Equality

Respecting Marriage


COMMENTARY: With the introduction of the Respect for Marriage Act, gay and lesbian couples moved one step closer to marriage equality in America. The big question: Will that be enough to really effect change in places where gays are still ostracized and treated as second-class citizens?

The bill, introduced in the U.S. House on September 15 by Democratic representatives Jerrold Nadler of New York, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Jared Polis of Colorado, seeks to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. In an interesting twist, Clinton is a major backer of the new bill, saying, "Throughout my life I have opposed discrimination of any kind. When the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, gay couples could not marry anywhere in the United States or the world for that matter. Thirteen years later, the fabric of our country has changed, and so should this policy."

Joining Clinton in the move to repeal DOMA is the bill's original sponsor, former representative Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, who was joined by 91 original backers of the bill now seeking for its full repeal.

So if someone like Barr, who introduced DOMA, can step back and realize that the world has changed and that we need to move toward a direction of equality, why is it so difficult for so many around the country to see clearly on this issue?

At almost the same time the Respect for Marriage Act was introduced, Iowa businessman Bob Vander Plaats announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination to unseat incumbent Iowa governor Chet Culver. This will be Vander Plaats's third attempt at that office, and he has been openly critical that his state, under Culver's leadership, has allowed same-sex couples full marriage rights -- following the state supreme court's unanimous April 2009 decision declaring Iowa's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. Vander Plaats declared that, if elected, he would issue an executive order to prevent future gay marriages and would put the issue in the hands of Iowa voters and the state's legislature.

Why does Vander Plaats worry so much? For that matter, why, in 2009, do same-sex unions still scare people? Does giving loving, committed same-sex couples the same rights as married straight couples affect the lives of nongays in any way? The way some people react, you'd think that gay people, once married, would be lined up at the doors of straight couples with a checklist of tips to improve their marriages. Let's be realistic, things happen behind closed doors that no one knows about. Sure, rumors may swirl if a couple is hedonistic or drinks too much or fights. But isn't every couple, gay or straight, subjected to conjecture?

In the summer of 2008, when the TV show Swingtown depicted life in the 1970s in a wealthy Chicago suburb where couples were swinging, rumors flew throughout that area that spouse swapping was once again in vogue. Among straight couples. Who are allowed to marry under state and federal law. So where were the conservative protesters shouting foul at this activity? The bottom line: Who gives a damn? If we all respect the ability of consenting adults to do what they want in the privacy of their own space, shouldn't that be their business?

Sure, the Swingtown phenomenon doesn't really speak to marriage rights, but my point is that, whether gay or straight, people can be deviant. Do the children of straight swingers fall behind in school or grow up depraved because their parents are having a little late-night debauchery? Probably not.

But both gay and straight couples are just as often committed and vanilla, and this is what the naysayers seem to overlook. Being gay does not make someone a creepy, perverted sex addict. The point of the marriage equality movement is that same-sex couples want to stand in front of their loved ones and commit themselves to each other and seal their partnership, whether this is before god or country only. They're not getting up in front of people to say, "I, [state your name], do promise to take [state your partner's name] in love, sickness, health, and orgies." When it comes down to it, we need to get people to understand that this isn't about religion. It's about civil rights. Civil marriage. Civility. In being denied the right to marry, same-sex couples are being denied so much more.

"Some people fail to differentiate between marriage as a religious institution and a civil institution," Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat of Rod Blagojevich appointee Roland Burris, told The Advocate. "While marriage as a religious institution should be governed by people's faith and the tenets of their religion, marriage as a civil institution should be governed by principles of fairness."

Giannoulias, who recently came out in support of same-sex marriage, continued, "Civil marriage should be equal for all people and provide the same protections under the law, with all legal rights and responsibilities. No American in a committed, long-term relationship should be denied inheritance rights, Social Security benefits, hospital visitation rights, equal pension and health care benefits, and all of the other legal protections government grants married couples."

According to an April ABC News/Washington Post poll, 49% of Americans believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Nearly half the country feels that this is a nonissue and that all people should be treated equally and fairly under the law.

Just don't ask Utah governor Gary Herbert. In late August, he said that discrimination against gay people shouldn't be illegal. (Although he did say he feels everyone should be treated with respect. Uh, thanks big guy.) If Herbert had said discrimination against black people shouldn't be illegal, he would've had to go into hiding. But a statement like that against gays is acceptable? That's disgusting and reprehensible.

Shortly after Californians passed Proposition 8, constitutionally restricting marriage to heterosexual couples, comparisons were drawn between the current gay rights struggle and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, with many asking whether gay was the new black.

"I've certainly heard that comparison drawn before, and I think there are similarities between any civil rights movements," Giannoulias said. "But in the end, I come back to my fundamental belief that all people should be treated equally, and that extends to two people in a committed relationship. DOMA creates a second class of citizenship. I will not stand for that."

So while we have made strides and have people of power supporting the cause, we still have a ways to go. If you know straight people who think gays shouldn't have the right to marry, ask them honestly why they feel that way. Don't get defensive. Don't get confrontational. Just ask. Ask them how they would feel if someone told them they couldn't marry their boyfriend or girlfriend. Or if they couldn't visit their partner in the hospital as they lay dying. What if they couldn't receive spousal tax breaks because their committed relationship isn't recognized by law. Ask them how it would affect their life if their gay neighbors, whom they may have dinner parties with or hug hello when they see them at the store, want to stand up and say "I do" in front of their loved ones. When they scratch their head and look bewildered, you'll know you've changed another opinion.

It's how we advance. It's as simple as that.

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