While the majority of U.S. citizens support equal access to jobs and housing, many are ambivalent, or hostile, to the idea of treating same-sex families the same as all others regarding legal marriage. Even though legal marriage would only provide same-sex couples with a legitimate next-of-kin status, it appears to test the limits of acceptance.
Until 2004, it appears to have also tested the limits of the lesbian and gay community’s resolve to seek equality. While national gay organization aggressively sought equal rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people regarding jobs and housing, it was not until 1993, that a national group joined an ongoing suit in Hawaii, and committed themselves to securing legal marriage equality.
From the first suit in 1971, 12 couples in different states were soley responsible for the marriage suits. And, usually, they stood alone. They were not widely embraced by our own community.
When national gay organizations did discuss legal marriage, it was often to say why it did not matter, or why it could never be won.
In 1987, the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRC), National Gay Rights Advocates, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) [After October 2014, known as the National LGBTQ Task Force.], Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Fund for Human Dignity, and National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays announced that they where lobbying for legislation that dealt with couples issues — partner benefits, equal treatment, fair foster care and adoption regulations, and legal recognition for domestic partners — but not legal marriage.
HRC launched a “National Family Registry” in February 1990. During the following two years, many who signed up contacted us saying that they never receive a promised certificate. Nor did the organization appear to fulfill its stated goal of periodic updates on lesbian and gay federal legislation, plus suggestions on how our families could help HRC lobby Congress. Plans for a Registry photo album, also to be part of a lobbying strategy, never came about.
The registry’s goal was to provide legislators, opinion leaders, and the public with the information that gay and lesbian families exist everywhere, and need the rights and validation that non-gay families get. At that period in history, marriage was not mentioned, and there was no evidence that any effort were made to place same-sex families in the public eye.
Currently, HRC has extensive family-supportive articles on their Web site.
In 1992, two promenent leaders launched a nationwide debate called “Gay Marriage: A Must or Bust.” In it Tom Stoddard spoke on “Why Gay People Should Seek the Right to Marry” which concerned itself with the pluses and minuses, however, not on how to go about actually getting legal marriage. Paula Ettlebrick spoke on “Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?”
During the course of this “debate,” one side seemed unsure of marriage as being useful for same-sex couples, the other side condemed it outright.
By 1996 Lambda Legal become co-counsel in the Hawaii case and launched a Freedom to Marry Coalition, for sharing winning strategies. NGLTF created a booklet “To Have — to Hold” which outlined the reasons for civil marriage and winning stategies. And HRC released a pro-marriage position paper, “Talking about Gay Marriage.” They also produced an anti-DOMA TV ad which ran in San Diego.
We know the theocrats are dedicated to preemptively banning any social or legal recognition of same-sex families, but the gay community itself is actually the first impediment to legalizing same-sex marriage.
One reason has been our community’s failure in the past to recognize relationships in our midst. For example, most of the gay press traditionally cast a largely blind eye to its coupled readership, despite the weight of survey data showing that more than 60 percent of the gay and lesbian community is in a relationship. The resulting invisibility of couples in our media led to perilous presumptions. We were lucky to see the occasional article on joint financing or partner abuse, and because we thought of ourselves as a community of individuals, we long-ignored the basic civil right of marriage.
Another reason for the failure to recognize relationships rests with couples themselves. Couples are a largely invisible segment of an already mostly underground community. And some same-sex couples take pains to maintain their own closets, primarily as protection from real or imaginary loss of jobs, housing, child custody or to preserve blood familial ties.
Maintaining the closet can be very unhealthy for relationships, sometimes even destroying them. Some couples see the potential loss of job or housing — a result of gay-hating — as a powerful incentive for hiding. For these couples, a marriage license could seen as a threat as it would shatter the safety of the closet, in part because it would be on public record.
When Texas State Representative Glen Maxey proposed legal marriage in 1993, his office was flooded with protests, some from members of the gay community. When Ben and Marcial Cable-McCarthy sued California for marriage in that same year, they received the most vocal support from straight people, and the most vocal antagonism from the gay community. The debate in the gay community should have been “How do we get legal marriage for those who want the option?” not “Is this worth pursuing?”
Some in the community think the fight for legal marriage would take energy away from other battles, such as non-discrimination laws. This attitude depends on the theory that there are limited resources in the universe. Pursuing justice in one arena doesn’t preclude achievements in another.
Another concern some have is that they think legal marriage would halt the growing acceptance of domestic partner benefit plans. When these plans where first introduced in 1985, they were only offered to same-sex couples. Since 1991, they have been increasingly offered to both same- and opposite-sex couples. When these plans are offered to all families, the majority benefiting from domestic benefits have been the opposite-sex couples, by about two-to-one. The availability of legal marriage to opposite-sex couples has not stopped their access to domestic partner plans. Likewise, same-sex partners should have access to both legal marriage and domestic partnership plans.
The fact is, domestic partner needs for our families are far better met by marriage law. Plus, you can take them with you when leaving a job, a city or a state.
One final reason the community has heretofore not pursued legal marriage is because some of us have secretly thought that we were not equal to our opposite-sex counterparts. Some of us feel shame about our sexuality and therefore unworthy of equal rights.
Discussions about marriage suits, like the one in Hawaii, have slowly changing everyone’s attitude. There are now many state-wide groups formed to educate about legal marriage and, in some cases, work against anti-marriage bills. [Please see Freedom to Marry Affiliate Organizations.]
Since our founding in 1986, Partners Task Force has advocated for full equality for same-sex couples. The Partners National Survey we conducted in 1990 showed us the broad range and depth of discrimination same-sex couples face as couples — not just being gay or lesbian — that would be addressed with legal marriage. This convinced us to actively support legal marriage. Many of our Web site articles are devoted to legal marriage, and we produced the first video on legal marriage for same-sex couples in 1996, called The Right to Marry.
The radical right religious extremists have promoted legal marriage as the social issue of the decade. They say they want America to be ruled by the Bible and (coincidentally) themselves. They could get their way if we let them.
Will you join in the struggle for equal rights, for equal treatment as a full participant in this society?
Quick Facts on Legal Marriage
Key Marriage Articles
Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage
South Africa (2005)
New Zealand (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
(England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
United States (2015)
US States & Territories
New Hampshire (2009)
District of Columbia (2009)
New York (2011)
Rhode Island (2013)
New Jersey (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
West Virginia (2014)
Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
North Carolina (2014)
South Carolina (2014)
U.S. Supreme Court (June 26, 2015):
Ruling: All U.S. States must now
allow same-sex couples the
freedom of legal marriage.
Native American Tribes|
Coquille Tribe, Oregon (2009)
Mashantucket Pequot, Connecticut (2011)
Suquamish Tribe, Washington (2011)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington (2013)
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota (2013)
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan (2013)
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Michigan (2013)
Santa Ysabel Tribe, California (2013)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Washington (2013)
Cheyenne, Oklahoma (2013)
Arapaho, Oklahoma (2013)
Leech Lake Tribal Court, Minnesota (2013)
Puyallup Tribe, Washington (2914)
Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming (2014)
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan, (2014)
Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington (2014)
Central Council of Tlingit, Alaska (2015)
Haida Indian Tribes, Alaska (2015)