November 17, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Land of the free? 

The future of gay marriage under Bush

When people throughout the country chose a president on November 2, voters in 11 states had an additional charge: deciding whether to ban same-sex marriage.

In all 11 states, and in frequently overwhelming numbers, voters approved the ban. And same-sex marriage became a strong political tool for the Right, which aimed to win voters based on their conservative values. Even some on the Left have criticized the gay-rights movement's timing, saying the push for gay marriage served as a political tool for President George Bush.

Now all eyes are on Congress, where Bush has vowed to pass a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage throughout the US. There's also a focus on the Supreme Court, where gay-rights advocates --- and many married gay couples --- are planning to challenge the 11 new state amendments as violations of basic human rights.

Unless they're recognized by their state and the federal government as legally married, advocates say, gay couples are denied almost 2,000 rights that heterosexual people take for granted. In a recent interview, Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley Project Coordinator Todd Plank discussed those rights, the impact of their denial, and a political climate that has made "protection of marriage" a high priority. Plank is a former Jehovah's Witness minister who was married to a woman for 10 years. Of his life before coming out, he says: "It almost killed me." An edited transcript of the interview with Plank follows.

City: Were you surprised atthe large number of people who voted to ban gay marriage?

Plank: I don't know if I had an expectation going into it. We knew the states that were able to get it to the level of a vote obviously had a base of support for the amendments. So I don't think I was shocked. Disappointed and disturbed, yes. But I don't think it was a complete surprise.

City: Oregon seems to be the one state where people felt they had a shot at voting the amendment down.

Plank: Well, because people there had been able to, for a short window of time, marry --- it was close to 4,000 people --- my sense was that Oregon might have been a more liberal state.

We also have to remember that only 50 to 60 percent of those eligible to vote across the country actually voted. So even with those numbers, they only reflect half the American public on those issues. The Republicans were able to effectively mobilize, as they clearly did, their constituents to vote. Obviously, the numbers are going to be distorted.

I think you have to put it in perspective. It's not really reflective of the attitudes of all people in a given state. It's a reflection of the majority of people who voted in those states, and we know where they stand politically because of who won the election. And they're conservative.

City:You mentioned the Republicans' ability to mobilize in these states. Is it becoming almost overwhelming?

Plank: We know a big effort was made in Ohio and Florida, because those were pivotal states. And it's disappointing we weren't able to carry those states.

It's more challenging in rural areas. Cities on either coast were more Blue, more liberal, more supportive on these issues. Then you get into some of these other areas, where people aren't exposed as much to gay people. They have these biases because they don't understand what it means. They don't understand that allowing same-sex couples to marry in no way impacts other people's personal liberties or their rights to their own personal religious expression.

We're not telling other people how to live their lives. We're just saying that gay people should not be treated as second-class citizens in this country. What people fail to realize, because they never have to think about it, is all the rights and protections that are directly connected to marriage, that we can get no other way because it's all so entrenched in the Constitution. We're talking about civil rights.

Now Republicans are trying to say that this was a moral victory, that all these amendments are a reflection of people's morals. But we can't legislate morality in this country. What about women's rights? Are we going to reverse Roe v. Wade? Are we going to start turning the clock back on civil rights, on people's liberties and freedoms?

The decision we have to make is, is this really a land of the free? Are we going to champion people's rights to live their lives the way they choose even if we disagree? Especially since it cannot be proven that gay marriage presents any danger to the American public.

We already know we have gay people in every state and county in this country, and things seem to be functioning OK. Gay people are not looking to make a hostile takeover of the country. We just want to be treated as equal citizens. And there are so many obstacles and hardships right now.

City: What will be the practical effect of these amendments?

Plank: Ultimately, there will have to be a way to file a suit and take this to the Supreme Court to prove that these amendments are unconstitutional. Because they are. It has not been demonstrated how it is in the interest of the public to bar people from civil marriage.

We're talking about people being barred from seeing their partner who may be in intensive care. Inheritance rights. Social Security, which becomes really important now that we're dealing with an aging population. Couples who've been together 30 or 40 years and one of them dies.... They invested equally in that relationship and yet the survivor gets no Social Security benefits. They're aging. You're talking about seeing more elderly people in poverty. And these individuals don't necessarily have the same support systems.

Then there are the children of same-sex households. Sometimes you can get a second-parent adoption. But that may limit where a person can accept a job, because in some states that may not be recognized. So the children are placed in jeopardy. If there is a birth-parent in the relationship, and that person dies, what happens to the kids, since the other parent's not a birth parent? Do the children go into foster care or adoption, or are they fielded out to other family members who have no regard for the other parent? Talk about family values.

The fact is, LGBT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered] people are more visible than ever before in every level of our society. And it sends a very damaging message to people living in these states about the attitudes toward gay people.

My concern is for people living in those states, for the kid in school who's known to be gay or perceived to be gay. Or other people living in Oregon who are married couples. How are they going to feel now that the climate appears hostile? Those people haven't done anything to deserve this. They're just living their lives. Suddenly they've become a target. And they've been used as a political tool to mobilize voters, which is very disingenuous. And then Bush at the end of his campaign was saying that he'd go along with civil unions. Yet earlier, he proposed this Federal Marriage Amendment to be written into the Constitution. It's like: OK, so what kind of game are we playing here? And who do we think we're fooling?

These amendments send a message that it's OK to treat gay people differently. We've seen what happens when people think they have that kind of permission to target another minority group. And I don't think the government can afford to allow that to happen.

City:What's your take on the situation here in New York? There have been some efforts made by local elected officials to get a state version of DOMA passed.

Plank: Well, we just had [State Attorney General] Eliot Spitzer visit. And he was very positive about the opportunities in New York State for the gay community. He could see it within four or five years, same-sex couples will be able to marry legally in this state.

New York is a very progressive state. And it has a huge concentration of gay people, obviously. It's an urban center. People are more educated, more sophisticated. People here come into contact with gay people pretty regularly. Most of us know someone who's gay. We've been socialized to understand that these are just normal people.

City: What sorts of experiences have GAGV members had with the recognition of civil unions or same-sex marriages performed in states like Vermont or Massachusetts?

Plank: In Massachusetts, you can get legally married if you are a resident or have the intention of being a resident of the state of Massachusetts. Otherwise, it has no validity. What makes more sense, and what I've seen other couples do, is going to Canada. Because it is a legal marriage regardless of whether or not it's recognized in the United States. It has credibility.

City:There's a sense among folks who have opposed these amendments that fundamentally human rights should never be left up to popular vote. That if this were the case, things like freedom of speech or freedom of the press would be in jeopardy.

Plank: It's a scary thought when we can debate who is entitled to basic human rights. The understanding was that the Constitution guaranteed these. Everything connected to marriage is a fundamentally human right.

When slavery was abolished, slaves didn't get a whole lot of rights. But one of the rights they were accorded was the right to marry. With what little they were offered, that was something they were allowed to do. And here we are in the 21st century debating all this.

There's a tremendous cost to this that just isn't understood, and the public needs to be aware of this. When we allow this religious base to get into the White House and legislate morality onto the American public, that is frightening. The reason people came here in the first place was to escape religious intolerance. And this is an example of religious intolerance. Because, unfortunately, when it comes to issues of sexuality, people default to religion. That's why we need to pull marriage out of the religious realms when it comes to looking at it from a governmental standpoint. We have to look at it from a legal standpoint. If we're going to debate the morality of this, we're never going to get everybody to the table. And that's not the role of government.

City:Even some liberals have been critical of the push for gay marriage, because they feel it provided Bush what he needed to reach "values" voters. Even groups who lobbied for the amendments say they're thankful for all the media coverage of same-sex marriages and civil unions to help bolster people opposed to it.

Plank: I think that really depends on where you are in the country and what kind of information you're being fed by the press. I think all of this really served to divide the American public and distract us from issues that are of legitimate concern to all Americans, like health care, like employment, like the war. Who's allowed to marry whom... I don't see how that impacts people's daily lives. We're really getting off track in terms of establishing national priorities and what's in the interest of the general public.

City:What do you expect to see over this next term of Congress? Especially in light of Bush's previous talk about pushing the Marriage Protection Amendment.

Plank: We have to determine if he actually intends to move forward, because he stated something quite to the contrary near the end of his reelection campaign.

My big concern is future appointments to the Supreme Court, because that's where we're going to have to challenge these state amendments as unconstitutional. If we have a court that's not going to support personal liberties, we've lost the balance of power. We've already lost the executive branch.

City:One of the arguments used by folks who pushed these amendments is that gay couples can gain some of the rights they seek through living wills. That they can make arrangements for their property, medical care, guardianship. Is that practical?

Plank: First of all, these things are not always recognized. You can go through all the work of having the documents in place and, depending on where your car breaks down, a person will chose not to regard those. There's also the concern that other family members will try to play the trump card because they're a blood relation, regardless of what paperwork you have. And not everyone can afford a lawyer to draw up all these papers. We can't have our rights unless we can afford to buy them? How is that American --- if I have to pay for rights that are given to Britney Spears for her how-many-hours marriage?

I think we should be supporting any structure that helps solidify families, that helps people to be successful. Why would we want to get in the way of that? There are so many kids who want homes. And there are gay couples who would be open to that if there was less of a stigma, less suspicion.

I think a lot of this is fear based. People really don't understand that gays and lesbians pose no threat to their lives, their families, their beliefs, their values. Many times, we hold the same values: family, community, even religious values. Gay people are spiritual.

City:There are still people out there, though, who have gay people in their family but still see homosexuality as a choice, and one best avoided.

Plank: I was married for almost 10 years. I grew up in a very conservative religious background. I was a minister. I did everything I could, genuinely, to be straight. And it almost killed me, because it wasn't who I was. I was anxious and depressed. And even though my life had all the appearances of being perfect, I was extremely unhappy. Now that I can be open about who I am and not internalize all that homophobia and self-hating guilt that was put on me by society and my religion, I'm a healthier, happier human being. I have more to offer society.

People will say: "Well, if you just found the right woman." I did. I loved my wife. It wasn't that I stopped loving this person. But I realized there was a truth about myself that I couldn't any longer deny. I hadn't led a double life. I was not unfaithful to my wife.

When I came to the realization of what was behind my deep-seated unhappiness, I had to make a decision. And it was a painful decision. But it was the right decision, because people have to live their truth and be who they are. And when you deny people to the right of the full expression of themselves, we all lose. It's a misguided belief to think the person will be happier. It's not for somebody else to choose for me my happiness.

City: Is there a compromise that could be achieved by some sort of federal civil-union law that forwards all the federal rights of married couples to civil unions?

Plank: I don't see how it's feasible to rewrite the entire Constitution to add civil unions.

It goes back to Separate but Equal. That didn't work. Plessy v. Ferguson: If you offer the same thing it's acceptable. And it didn't work. It's inherently unequal if there's a need to make a separation. You're sending a message culturally that has an impact in your daily life. That allows people to feel like they can get away with calling you a faggot.

In this Blue state, hope

In New York State, much of the battle for same-sex marriages is being fought by the Empire State Pride Agenda. While not performed in New York, same-sex marriages have been recognized here by some government entities and private employers. And though the national picture may seem bleak, ESPA leaders say that thanks to state elections, New York State's LGBT community is better off today than it was before November 2.

Ross Levi, ESPA's director of public policy and education, talked with City Newspaper last week about why he's optimistic about the continued expansion of gay rights in New York. He also detailed lessons learned from the election, and explained why love just might be the answer. An edited transcript of that interview follows.

City: How can the gay-rights movement compete against the overwhelming resources of groups pushing anti-marriage amendments?

Levi: I think you battle it by having more of the face-to-face, one-on-one, grassroots conversations that allow people to understand the reality of your life.

The lesson from this election is that lesbian and gay people and our allies need to think beyond just our issues, and see them as a part of a broad vision for America. We shouldn't be surprised that a lot of people who wanted to be a part of a big vision went with George Bush, because the only place they're getting that vision is in their churches and from the Right Wing.

But there are a lot of people who understand that whatever may be preached on Sunday, we need to find a way to get along on Monday. People of faith, in the spirit of love, have a responsibility to make sure all citizens are treated equally.

We need to be telling our very personal stories in terms of right and wrong, and in terms of love, every chance we have. We should not be afraid to say, even to the Red states, "Don't you want to be a part of a nation that celebrates the love of any two consenting adults?" "Don't you think it is immoral to leave children of lesbian or gay parents without the protection of their government?" Are we going to be a nation that protects all its families, even if we don't understand how all those families work?

This discussion about our families can't happen in an insider way. I think our movement has been far more comfortable talking about civil rights than we have been talking about love. And I think we need to continue to emphasize that in the end, what this is about is two loving people deciding they want to be together for the rest of their lives and expecting that their community will support them in that choice.

City:Several of the state amendments weren't limited to marriage.

Levi: One of the things that hasn't been totally recognized is that eight of these amendments in fact said public entities could not give any support to same-sex couples. That plays out in literally thousands of ways. You cannot have health insurance for each other. You can't inherit the property you may have worked on for your whole life. You may not have the ability to equally parent the children you're both raising.

In New York there are literally 1,800 rights and responsibilities [that] attach to a couple as soon as they get married.

City:Someone actually went through the process of counting all that?

Levi: Oh yeah. Actually, the way it worked was the federal government, the General Accounting Office, came up with 1,138 federal rights. And the only group to have counted here in New York so far is the Pride Agenda, and we found 700.

A huge bulk of those rights and responsibilities can not be achieved any other way than through marriage. You can hire every lawyer from Buffalo to East Hampton and you couldn't, for example, inherit the Social Security benefits that a spouse gets when their spouse dies.

But one thing we really need to recognize here in New York is that our LGBT community came out of this election in New York State stronger than when we went in. The vast majority of legislators who had a problem [with their election] had a problem because they weren't progressive enough. One of the glaring exceptions to that might be Susan John, who I think may have had some problems because of her progressive views on a host of issues.

City:You sound optimistic, but some state officials have been pushing to have the Defense of Marriage Act passed here.

Levi: Oh, absolutely. We need to continue to be diligent, to make sure New York remains a state without a DOMA and that it continue on its present path of giving our families the protection they need.

Just before they left for the summer, the state legislature passed a law that allows us to see our partners in hospitals. It guarantees us equal hospital visitation. That's not an aberration. It's a continuation of New York extending rights to our families bit by bit every year. We hope and expect that trend will continue.

That said, you're right. The forces against marriage equality for our families are strong. And we're going to have to do a good job of making sure New Yorkers continue to understand the realities facing our families.

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