OK. All done now? Oh. No? Another round? Sure, why not. Here we go!
There. Now. Let’s be quiet for a moment and think about what this means and how long it’s been in coming.
A quick history lesson is in order. Back in 1993, Hawaii’s Supreme Court first tried to say the state constitution allowed same sex marriages by default, and that banning them was therefore not permissible. But the state’s voters closed that loophole, adding a constitutional clause that limited marriage to being between one man and one woman. Idiocy won the day. And carried much of the nation. Many states added similar clauses to their own constitutions in response to the Hawaii situation.
In 1996, the US Congress passed the nasty Defense of Marriage Act, which basically says “states only have to respect marriages performed in other states if those marriages don’t involve two people of the same gender”. (May I add, down with DOMA. Efforts to repeal it began earlier this year, but so far have not, to my knowledge, been successful).
Some equality minded states tried to move things in the right direction, but on the whole, it’s been a slow, uphill battle. Before New York, only ten of the fifty states allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry or enter into the separate and not-equal state of “civilly united”. That figure doesn’t count California, which isn’t permitting same-gender marriages to be performed while Proposition 8 plods through the court system. An even fifth of the nation, then, allowed any kind of equality before tonight. A couple more recognized marriages performed in other states but lacked the support or courage to support marriage equality themselves. New York just moved off that last list and onto the first, bringing the equality-friendly count to eleven.
That means, as a nation, that we are a bunch of chickenshits. Canada legalized same sex marriages in 2001, and, in spite of a lot of hullabaloo and rabble-rousing, the gay-Canadian-zombie task force has not infiltrated the US. (Sorry fans. The South Park movie never came true at any level.) Nine other countries also support marriage equality, and they have not devolved into chaos. So the US was watching New York tonight for a number of reasons.
For one thing, New York doesn’t have any residency laws for granting a marriage license. Anybody can go there and get married. Anybody. Now, whether a gay or lesbian couple’s home state will recognize that marriage when they get back is a different issue. But at the level of simple fairness, of the simple legal acknowledgement of a loving bond, New York has opened its doors.
For another thing, California is in Proposition 8 limbo. Poor timing meant that after California legalized same sex marriages, voters enacted a constitutional ban on them: Proposition 8. (At least two groups who turned out in such large numbers to vote for President Obama in 2008 are historically opposed to same-sex unions.). A federal judge threw out Proposition 8, but when he turned out to be gay, his ruling was called into question. And upheld. But it’s been appealed, and the case is liable to go to the Supreme Court, whose decision for California is going to send a nationwide message on the topic. I hope the Big Court opts for Equality. Even more, I hope the Court refuses to hear the case, which would mean the ruling of the judge who invalidated the proposition would be upheld by default and would send a message of its own. But that battle is a little bit in the future. Right now, people are watching New York, and I’m sure not a few of them are imagining a similarly tight fight when Proposition 8 comes around the horn again.
But perhaps the biggest reason all eyes were on New York tonight was that the gay rights movement really has its roots in New York’s 1969 Stonewall Riots. So this vote had a lot of symbolic meaning. Before Stonewall, there was a quiet homophile movement, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had founded the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950’s. But those groups were more engaged in protecting their members, in giving them a safe place to stay in the closet. Only after Stonewall did Kinsey’s statistics about homosexuality and its prevalence gain widespread respect. (Even though Kinsey’s other results about human sexuality had already gained scientific ground.) Only after Stonewall was it common to be openly gay in America and proud of it. Only after Stonewall did the nation have to take notice that homosexuality was not a disease or aberration.
So it can be imagined that with New York adding its name to the marriage-equality rosters, the same kind of momentum might finally bring the national players to a fair decision. And even if it doesn’t, tonight’s vote closes a kind of circle. What started with an act of civil disobedience has come round to a legislative action all but unimaginable when the movement first began.
For my part, I hope New York brings enough people around that equality becomes the norm at the national level. Because the suggestion that marriage equality should be decided at this state-by-state snail’s pace is absurd. I have dear friends who cannot check the ‘married, filing jointly’ box as their federal tax status. Even if their home state recognized their marriage, our nation would not. I have another friend who could not legally obtain a divorce when she and her partner of eleven years split up, because they were never legally married. It’s a technicality that involves not just the distribution of personal property, but the custody of their two children.
People close to me are punished by this lack of equality, and it’s an injustice that makes me angry. I want to see the United States go the way of New York. I want to get up one morning knowing that our country realizes the rights afforded to straight married couples must be extended to all married couples. And for that to happen, couples must be allowed to marry without regard to gender. Our national vision must extend beyond some pseudo-Victorian falsehood. I want all my friends and family members to have the same options I do in a relationship, no matter who they love, and no matter what their gender.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.