Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gays Differ on Marriage Fight

The debate over marriage for same-sex couples continues to rage within the broader movement for LGBT rights as evidenced in this feature I wrote for Gay.com. It's fair to maintain everyone agrees upon the principle of fairness and equality for same-sex couples. The question remains how to achieve that goal. Putting all of ones eggs into one basket is never a successful strategy as previous civil rights struggles and social movements have proven. Yet this debate will obviously continue as courts and legislatures around the country take up this highly contentious issue. Stay tuned...

As lawmakers on both coasts debate marriage rights for same-sex couples, the issue stands at the top of many LGBT activists' agendas. But not all. Some say this focus on same-sex marriage actually works against their advocacy on other queer issues.

Queers for Economic Justice Executive Director Joseph DeFelippis is critical of the recent focus on gay marriage. His New York-based nonprofit seeks more affordable housing, access to health care, employment and education for economically disadvantaged LGBT New Yorkers.

"The movement for gay marriage has been a disaster," DeFelippis said.

DeFelippis criticizes the way marriage equality advocates have framed the debate, with their talking points and other public comments.

New York transgender activist Melissa Sklarz added that the marriage debate fails to take into account the everyday reality of many LGBT people. She said she feels LGBT urbanites, in particular, are focused on more basic issues than marriage rights.

"For many people in the LGBT community, the ability to survive is always a struggle," she said. "The issue of survival transcends the issue of security."

Equality Alabama board member Howard Bayless shares concerns about basic survival. LGBT activists in his state have focused on anti-hate crime legislation since three Alabamans brutally murdered gay resident Scotty Joe Weaver in Baldwin County in 2004. Equality Alabama's primary mission is to expand rights for LGBT Alabamans, but Bayless says the marriage debate has also allowed his organization and others like it to enhance advocacy for other issues, like fighting hate crime.

"The movement's focus on marriage is providing a vehicle for us to come out at work and to our families and become active in the political process," Bayless said.

Gay marriage's history

The marriage debate began in earnest in 1993, after a Hawaiian judge ruled the ban on marriage for same-sex couples violated the state's constitution. Then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who now chairs the Democratic National Committee, signed the country's first civil unions bill into law in 2000 after the state's Supreme Court ruled in favor of three same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses.

Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire have since followed suit, while Massachusetts remains the only state where gay and lesbian couples can legally marry. The state's Supreme Judicial Court issued its landmark Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health decision in 2003, when a lesbian couple sued the Commonwealth for denying the women a marriage license. California lawmakers twice passed a marriage bill but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it in 2005 and again Friday.

Advances in the marriage rights movement, especially the Goodridge decision, have sparked a backlash. Voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments to ban marriage for same-sex couples in 2004. Courts in New York, Washington and, most recently, Maryland have ruled against gay men and lesbians who've sought the right to marry in their respective states.

A small but significant faction of LGBT activists has questioned the efficacy of focusing on marriage. More than 250 leaders across the country urged gays and lesbians to look beyond marriage equality in the statement, "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for Our Families & Relationships," released in July 2006. DeFilippis says activists should focus their time and resources on access to health care and other efforts he concludes would generate more tangible results.

"These are more winnable fights than this one has turned out to be," he said.

Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wolfson staunchly defends the gains gay marriage advocates have made. He dismisses criticism that same-sex marriage has been championed at the expense of other issues.

"We care about all aspects of our lives," he told Gay.com in a recent interview. "We are fighting for full inclusion and equality."

Equality California Political Director Seth Kilbourn pointed out that his organization sponsored nine pieces of legislation in addition to the marriage bill Golden State lawmakers approved earlier this year. These include protections for LGBT students and a proposal to allow registered domestic partners to file joint income tax returns. Same-sex marriage rights are just one piece of Equality California's overall agenda, Kilbourn said.

"We are advocating generally for equal treatment under the law in people's lives," Kilbourn said.

Equality Maryland Executive Director Dan Furmansky conceded that efforts to defeat amendments against same-sex marriage have depleted LGBT political resources in recent years. He told Gay.com in a recent e-mail that LGBT organizations "cannot afford" to focus on any single issue. Furmansky maintains, however, that the fight for marriage rights remains vitally important.

"We as LGBT advocates must keep fighting for the protections of marriage because these protections will help millions of Americans in immeasurable ways," Furmansky said.

DeFelippis and others remain skeptical.

"We have a much broader and exciting and creative vision for our families than reflected in the narrow marriage rights movement," DeFelippis said.

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