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Life after Knight
A call for direct action and civil disobedience
by Eric Rofes
© March 8, 2000, Eric Rofes

With the passage yesterday of the anti same-sex marriage “Knight” Initiative (Proposition 22) in California by a landslide vote, I believe it is time for activists to consider a range of new strategies and tactics in our efforts to win access and equity in the institutions of our democracy. Having lived through six weeks with zillions of “Yes on Proposition 22” signs littering the landscape of our lives on the North Coast, I am fired up to see our efforts shift into high gear and take on the right wing through the use of direct action. I believe there are a range of creative approaches that will contribute to promoting social justice at a heightened level.

I have written the following piece in response to yesterday’s vote, but also out of a sense that the time is right for a reconsideration of direct action as a central tactic in our social change movements.

The passage of the anti-same-sex marriage “Knight” Initiative by 62 percent of the California voters may come to be seen as a turning point igniting more intense activism promoting full participation in the institution of marriage. Even if progressive forces had defeated Proposition 22, marriage in California would still have been restricted to a man and a woman. Some of us have grown impatient and are no longer satisfied with strategies which fail to directly confront mainstream resistance to same-sex marriage.

We’ve had enough of people thinking this is too radical an issue to win mainstream support, except in rare parts of the nation which still value participatory democracy. We are tired of liberal politicians and patronizing journalists denouncing the Knight Initiative while simultaneously arguing that marriage should be reserved for mixed-sex couples. We’re not content with heterosexuals enjoying the advantages of state-sanctioned marriage while same-sex couples grovel for a watered-down imitation-domestic partnership. And we’re dissatisfied with this struggle remaining in the hands of gay organizations that conceptualize activist strategy only through the lens of the traditional legal and political machinery.

Some activists have had enough of the patient and polite organizing methods of the past decade. Some of us may quit the courts, retreat from legislatures, and exit professional press briefings. Instead, we may take up the tactics most necessary for social change but largely absent from a contemporary gay movement comprised almost entirely of suit-and-skirt lobbyists, splashy television advertisements, and upscale black-tie dinner banquets: direct action and mass civil disobedience.

In this next, more militant phase of efforts to win same-sex marriage, justice-minded individuals, liberal politicians, and civil rights leaders may no longer be granted the luxury of talking out of both sides of their mouths. One will either be for full and democratic participation in the institutions of our culture, or be an advocate for discrimination. There will no longer a viable position of neutrality.

We Should Refuse to Attend Mixed-Sex Weddings

These days, when I receive an invitation to the marriage of heterosexual friends, family members, or students, I am filled with outrage. What nerve! Sending an invitation to me (and, often, my lover) with no reference to the fact that I am being asked to participate as an observer in an event in which I legally am not permitted to be a central participant! No note acknowledging the disparity and injustice, no sheepish apology for participating in an institution of segregation, no phone call checking-in about the politics of it all.

It may be time for queers to stop letting heterosexuals off the hook! They embrace marriage uncritically only because we let them! And they will continue to be blind to the politics of engagements, marriage, and weddings until they are forced to see them as segregated rituals and institutions that must be challenged, undermined, and transformed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and our allies may be ready to take direct action by refusing wedding invitations and articulating our reasons loudly; holding demonstrations at daily newspapers which continue to run marriage columns that are not accessible to all; and disrupting television shows such as “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” or “The Newlywed Game” that are conceptualized around an institution currently founded on exclusivity and bigotry.

Social change on cutting-edge issues rarely occurs in the absence of a direct action strategy. Building on rich traditions of militant organizing inspired most recently by ACT-UP, but rooted in the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, and anti-nuclear activism, these efforts may be what is needed to transform current campaigns for equal access to marriage into an authentic movement for social justice and participatory democracy. Activists may take their struggle directly to the people using powerful organizing methods strategically designed to create a critical consciousness about the politics of marriage, inspire a movement of street activists passionate about bringing about change, and force the issue into an arena of intense public scrutiny.

Same-Sex Couples Must Undermine the Marriage Bureaucracy

Holding a mass queer wedding every time there is a march on Washington, or the mayor of San Francisco organizes such an event in city hall, may no longer be enough. A marriage simulation does not in and of itself function as civil disobedience. And many people have come to believe that candlelight vigils are an inadequate response to anti-gay votes. Such vigils are not the same as political protest. We may need more than candles, more than photo ops, more than sloganeering. The time may be right for the kind of carefully crafted actions that demonstrate a new level of serious intent about this issue and place same-sex marriage in the public eye in a compelling and confrontational manner. We soon may see national networks of activists plotting massive civil disobedience actions focused on undercutting key points-of-access to the institution of marriage.

There has been a small but very important stream of civil disobedience actions in the marriage fight. It has involved members of the clergy who violate orders from denominational authorities and perform same-sex marriages at tremendous risk to their careers. These clergy members have been put on trial, censored, and even defrocked for their actions. In the post-Knight Initiative era, let’s hope we see more clergy with integrity to take similar actions.

At the same time, LGBT activists themselves might be ready to follow the lead of these clergy members. We might see coordinated days of action when same-sex couples attempt to register at the local county clerk’s office. Imagine the impact if same-sex couples in rural areas, small town America, urban centers, and suburban neighborhoods throughout the nation on the same day and at the same time showed up couple-by-couple and stood on line to fill out the forms to register for marriage. Imagine if they requested the proper forms and replied to refusals with a pre-determined response grounded in passive resistance. Imagine if they were all trained to alert local media outlets, organize teams of vocal supporters, and articulate a calm, impact-full message in response to this closed institution. Imagine if they returned in a coordinated manner every day for a week or a month voicing the same powerful statement.

Or imagine same-sex couples chaining themselves peaceably to the front doors of the offices of their neighborhood justice of the peace and singing songs of liberation as they were carted off to jail. Or choosing to appear in large numbers outside the churches where prominent politicians or celebrities were getting married, silently holding up signs stating “Participation in Marriage is Participation in Injustice,” or “Saying I Do when We Can’t = Bigotry.” Or crashing local wedding ceremonies at the moment where the officiator asks for any objections, standing up and reciting a speech about the shameful inequity of access to marriage. Justice-minded heterosexual couples must boycott marriage until it is democratized.

It has been wonderful to note large numbers of supportive heterosexuals — especially heterosexuals under the age of 30 — decrying barriers to same-sex marriage. As the debates intensify and the stakes increase, LGBT activists will begin to urge these folks to back up their rhetoric with principled action. Justice-minded heterosexuals could make a major contribution to undermining the status quo by refusing to participate in the institution of marriage until it is open to all.

Willful Participation in Heterosexual Privilege

Some heterosexual allies already understand that marriage is a form of heterosexual privilege that comes at the expense of gay and lesbian rights, gender equality, and social justice. They understand that marriage grants them a whole set of advantages, benefits, and legal privileges that are subsidized by gay folks and others who do not marry. We actively pay for what many others see as normal, universal, and sacred. This leads many activists to argue that we should be fighting for the strong domestic partnership laws currently in place in many northern European nations-for both same-sex and mixed-sex couples. In these nations, marriage simply becomes a religious “add-on” outside the realm of state sanction.

During a period when same-sex couples cannot marry, the taking of such vows by mixed-sex couples will increasingly be named for what it is; an act of willful participation in an institution that is neither democratic nor open to all. In the year 2000, heterosexuals getting married parallels Christians joining a club that excludes Jews, men working as partners in a law firm that has no female partners, or whites supporting the flying of the Confederate flag over public buildings intended to serve people of all races. No matter how one wishes to frame them, such choices are inherently ethical choices: participation in rituals and institutions that exclude sectors of society puts you on the side of discrimination and oppression.

It may be time not only for true heterosexual allies to say NO to marriage until all people have equal access, but also for all principled people to engage in public education around their refusal to accept privilege. Will we begin to see groups marching outside religious institutions and county clerk offices under banners such as “Hetero-Couples Refusing to Marry Until All Can Marry,” or “Until All Are Welcome, None Must Participate: Free Marriage Now!”? Will we begin to hear from the children raised by mixed-sex couples who take a justice-minded stand and refuse to get married until same-sex couples can get married? Is now the time to put an economic dent in the wedding industry, a result of large numbers of heterosexuals refusing to open their wallets for marriage licenses, wedding receptions, bridal dresses, photographers, and honeymoon excursions. Imagine if heterosexual allies publicly burned their marriage certificates?

Building a Social Change Movement

There is an important historical precedent for this kind of privilege-refusing action. During the civil rights movement, a number of white people, repulsed by the injustices of racism, declined to participate in key institutions of segregation. They refused to utilize white-only public facilities, ride on busses which forced blacks to the back seats, and sit at segregated lunch counters. Likewise, there have been men who resigned from clubs that excluded Jews, women, and people of color, and people with inherited wealth who have given away their legacies to organizations in poor communities working for economic redistribution. It is time for such visionary pioneers to emerge in this battle against heterosexism.

Some argue that the queers predisposed to militant activism do not see marriage as a priority and view the institution as problematic; those who value marriage may be less inclined towards tactics of direct action. As in all social justice movements, radical activism won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Yet we have learned from voter initiatives ending affirmative action and jettisoning bilingual programs in public schools, that California is the right wing’s testing-ground for regressive initiatives. The passage of the Knight Initiative by voters of the largest and most trend-setting state in the nation should compel us immediately to break through earlier barriers to militancy and rethink our cautious strategy and limited tactics.

Social change movements that lack a direct action component and don’t take seriously the power of civil disobedience, risk becoming nothing more than symbolic demands and rhetorical hype. Same-sex marriage will become a reality throughout the United States sometime in the next century. It will come about more expeditiously, and with a greater public understanding of the links between gay marriage and participatory democracy, if we replace strategies of pleading and bargaining with the tactics of a true social change movement.

© 2000, Eric Rofes

This article had assistance from Wayne Hoffman, Joan E. Biren, Diane Sabin, Dave Orphal, Liz Highleyman,
Kate Clinton, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Jim Mitulski, Eileen Hansen, Will Seng, and Michael Scarce.

Professor Eric Rofes (August 31, 1954 - June 26, 2006) taught education at Humboldt State University
in Arcata, California. He was a long-time community organizer and author of nine books, including
“Dry Bones Breathe: Gay men creating post-AIDS identities and cultures” (Haworth, 1998).

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