Friday, November 14, 2008

Equality, Marriage & the Union

This weekend, lesbians, gays, supporters and other fair-minded individuals in over 100 cities worldwide and in the United States will hold marriage equality protest rallies. California and New York already started theirs. This movement is spurred by passage of anti-gay measures in California (gay marriage ban), Florida (gay marriage ban), Arkansas (gay adoption ban) and Arizona (gay marriage ban) last week and organized by 26-year-old Amy Balliet through her blog Balliet was not going to wait for someone else to organize a national movement to challenge the unfair and discriminatory propositions passed during the national elections. Clearly, thousands of others - gay and straight - feel the same way. These civil actions belong to the greater fight for LGBT equality.

But is LGBT equality possible?

In the short term, full equality for lesbian and gay individuals remains a dream. Under a new Democratic administration and legislature, some rights might be won, but these would be minor steps toward parity with heterosexuals. Nonetheless, LGBT people and their straight allies should not be discouraged and lose sight of the goal. They need to continue the struggle with full vigor and tenacity.

However, they also need to be pragmatic and realize that some form of inequity will always exist in society. There will always be insiders and outsiders, those on top and those on the bottom, haves and have nots. The aim should be to lessen the gap, widen the middle, share power and yes, spread the wealth. We have to bring and welcome more into the commons. Let us keep the ideal of Equality in mind and march together towards it.

And we get there in increments, in steady steps, sometimes large but very often small. Just as African Americans started their journey with the Abolitionist Movement, waited an ungodly while for the desegregation of public spaces, suffered and prevailed through the Civil Rights Movement, and to this day labor for their rightful place in American society. Just as Asian Americans, Latinos and other people of color keep on the path, frequently pushed back but still moving forward from mere factors of production and suspected traitors to full citizens. It does not culminate with the ascendancy of Barack Obama.

So it goes with gay women and men who have had enough and started their long trek with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and now find themselves demanding equality. Three steps forward, one back. More visibility and tolerance, big celebrities, leaders in congress and business, victories in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but still discriminated against at work and in neighborhoods, still not enjoying full benefits of citizenship, still attacked for being honest and loving.

An important discussion within the LGBT movement, particularly in terms of marriage equality, is whether we should insist on the term "marriage" or settle for "civil unions," which seem to be a wee bit more palatable to the general population. While this might seem like a minor point and a matter of semantics, for many it is not.

On principle, there are those who refuse to go with the term "civil union" even if the same federal benefits and protections were accorded gay couples.* They correctly point out that agreeing to civil unions is just another case of separate but equal. Others like myself argue that it does not matter who gets to keep the word "marriage" so long as we get the same 1,138 federal benefits, rights and privileges heterosexual couples enjoy. If compromising on what to call a legal status does the trick, then I am for it. People can call it Shirley for all I care. At the end of the day, married, civil union-ed or shirley-ed, we will be considered married by most. As the four-year-old daughter of friends recently declared, "Mister Erwin and Father John are married, just like mommy and daddy." While we are still not allowed the same legal rights and status as her parents, she senses that our love and commitment are no different than mommy and daddy's.

This goes back to being pragmatic and accepting the reality that injustice and inequity are sad facts of human existence. But as humans, we also have ideals we fight and strive for. Equality. Justice. Love. We might never achieve them fully but we keep at it, one step at a time.

Photo: The New York City Independent Media Center

*Clarification of terms. Civil unions were established to extend rights to same-sex couples but only within the state where the couple resides. States with civil union statutes include Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire. While states like Massachusetts and Connecticut currently permit same-sex marriages, the benefits and rights afforded same-sex couples end at state lines. Only a federal law permitting same-sex marriage OR civil unions will give same-sex couples the same privileges as straight couples.

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