Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Anti-marriage voices seek input in fight for gay equality


The antigay initiatives

Joseph DeFilippis of Queers for Economic Justice at last week's Creating Change conference. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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It was perhaps to be expected from such a large conference with so many diverse voices, but it struck queer activist Joseph DeFilippis, nonetheless. At the plenary session on Saturday, November 12 at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference, John D'Emilio, former director of the task force's Policy Institute and current professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, harshly criticized gay marriage proponents for what he characterized as misplaced priorities and a hijacking of the movement. Following D'Emilio's remarks, said DeFilippis, half the room burst into uproarious applause. The other half of the crowd sat confused, almost as if stunned to be in the company of its own community.

"My feeling about this year's Creating Change was, 'Wow. There really are two different conferences happening,'" said DeFilippis, the executive director of New York's Queers for Economic Justice, and one of several panelists at last Thursday's pre-conference institute dealing with class issues. "There were all these major marriage activists, and all these people who were really sick of it. Some people were sick of it because they felt it diverted energy and funds from other issues. And some people, like myself, are actually scared about what gay marriage is going to do."

DeFilippis and others at last week's conference said they favored domestic partnerships and other ways to legally recognize nontraditional family structures such as the army of ex-lovers that often serves as a caregiving network for queers and polyamorous and extended families of all sexualities. Pushing for things like universal healthcare, they said, would be preferable to pretending that marriage would take care of LGBT people who do not have romantic partners or jobs with benefits. And upholding the notion that only romantically involved people are committed enough to deserve recognition, they said, could have devastating effects on the community.

If conferences like Creating Change are a microcosm of the national LGBT movement, then it is evident that more outreach must be done to bring pro-marriage and anti-marriage forces together in the struggle. This is particularly true in places like California, where the right wing has combined the issues of marriage and domestic partnerships in an effort to discriminate against all relationships – gay and straight – that deviate from the one man-one woman model of economic and legal responsibility.

One, if not two, antigay constitutional amendments are headed to California's ballot next year. If passed by voters, the ballot initiatives would permanently ban gay marriage in California's constitution and revoke all existing domestic partner rights and responsibilities under current law. Because the initiatives are constitutional amendments, there would be no in-state legal remedies after their passage, as courts and legislators are bound by the constitution.

"Marriage. Invalidation of Domestic Partnerships" is backed by Gail Knight, the widow of the late state Senator Pete Knight, who authored the gay marriage ban in the family code known as Proposition 22. The initiative bans any legal recognition of a union outside of marriage.

"Marriage. Elimination of Domestic Partner Rights" is backed by Randy Thomasson's Campaign for Children and Families. In addition to banning gay marriage, Thomasson's initiative forbids the government from bestowing spousal-like benefits to gay couples, which overturns existing state and local laws. It also declares that it is in the best interest of children to have a mother and a father, a clause that could be interpreted broadly in a number of related legal matters.

Since their original filing last summer, the initiatives have been resubmitted to the attorney general's office on several occasions, a process that re-started the clock on how much time was allotted for the 598,105 valid signatures to be collected. But as expected, November's special election has come and gone, freeing up more conservative resources to organize around the initiatives, and the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday, November 12, that Knight's has already submitted 200,000 signatures in an attempt to qualify its measure by December 27 for the June 2006 ballot. Thomasson's reportedly will begin its signature gathering campaign next month, and that initiative could appear on either the June or November 2006 ballot.

Recognizing that Democratic tactics of avoiding the topic of marriage have not worked in similar battles across the country, including California's own No on Knight campaign in 2000 against Proposition 22, organizers who are a part of California's Equality for All said part of their strategy for defeating next year's initiatives will concentrate on making a case for gay marriage.

But detractors from the marriage movement say how that message is packaged makes a difference in terms of gathering public support and convincing the entire LGBT community to rally against hateful attacks.

Unfit to be tied

At the Creating Change "First, Class" workshop led by DeFilippis and colleagues, the case against gay marriage was not presented as typical anti-assimilation rhetoric, but as a conflict around an institution with complicated governmental ties and fiscal assumptions about who and what makes a family.

Queer historian and professor Lisa Duggan said it was no coincidence that the push for traditional marriage usually comes in conjunction with a push to de-fund social programs such as Medicare and Social Security and privatize relationships so that fewer people are considered the responsibility of the state. This was seen in welfare reform, she said, a process through which most LGBT groups remained silent despite the clearly stated intentions to legitimize some families over others. Now the LGBT community is adopting much of the same language around "maturity" and "responsibility" to fight for an institution that will regulate their households and vital services as well, she said.

Duggan is concerned, she said, that the message in favor of gay marriage is the same message that has been used to further stigmatize marginalized populations. And as evidenced by the right wing's joint bans on gay marriage and domestic partnership, the fight for gay marriage has actually jeopardized other forms of family recognition, she said. In Massachusetts, she noted, the gay marriage victory led some companies to abolish domestic partnership benefits since there was no longer perceived to be a need. The problem is that many people, straight and queer alike, cannot afford to get married and yet still need some rights to be attached to their chosen partnerships.

"When we win, we lose and when we lose, we lose," she said.

California already recognizes this on some level; its domestic partner registry is open not just to same-sex couples but to some senior opposite-sex couples for whom marriage may threaten eligibility for certain public programs on which they rely. The state's law is also the most comprehensive in the nation, providing many of the same rights to domestic partners as marriage to those who are registered.

Accordingly, noted Geoff Kors, an executive member of Equality for All, California's campaign for marriage equality actually does not threaten domestic partnerships, which entities across the state are required by law to honor. Passing marriage equality, he said, would not overturn domestic partnerships, and winning the marriage battle would only make it more possible to honor complex family arrangements within and outside the LGBT community.

"The fight for marriage equality doesn't take away from recognition for other relationships. By opening up marriage to same-sex couples we can begin to have the dialogue for different types of relationships that need legal protection," Kors told the Bay Area Reporter.

Kors also said that without the push for marriage equality, California never would have adopted so many domestic partnership rights, and would not have passed recent laws protecting transgenders from insurance discrimination and prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of not just sexual orientation but marital status as well.

"We've successfully engaged them, educated them, and moved them on this issue," said Kors of Californians, 46 percent of whom now support gay marriage.

Where Kors said winning marriage would free up resources for other LGBT battles, some LGBT community members said it's exactly that current monopolization that they oppose. And while Kors said that marriage "is ultimately an economic justice issue" for people without the economic means to protect each other; people like DeFilippis said they would rather fight to change the system that creates that economic inequality for unmarried people in the first place.

"Why not try to broaden this issue to family recognition?" DeFilippis told the B.A.R., speaking generally and not necessarily specific to California's fight. Marriage activists fighting antigay initiatives would do well, he said, to point to the variety of family structures, from grandmothers raising children to senior citizens who rely on each other.

"Instead of making this about gay couples and whether people approve or not, make it about whether a man and a woman should be the only form of family recognized, because then we have more allies because more people fit into that structure," said DeFilippis. "Recognize that sometimes your caregiver is your neighbor or your sister or your grandchild, and we should be fighting to expand recognition of different kinds of families rather than who gets to be married. Look at all the other people not in couples who will suffer too."

Kors said that such a strategy should be a part of the battle against California's antigay initiatives in addition to making a case for gay marriage, and that the two arguments were not in opposition.

"I think everyone in our movement wants to make sure we don't put into our constitution restrictions and prohibitions against any community. Whether we think the institution of marriage is a good or bad thing, we all should be united to end government discrimination based on gender and sex in any aspect of the law. Until we do that it's going to be very difficult to start broadening recognition of families in other ways."

Both Kors and DeFilippis agree that gay marriage activists need the support of their community members who do not favor marriage, and likewise, queers opposed to gay marriage still have a stake in the fight.

Ultimately, they said, the gay marriage bans nationwide are more about threatening the existence of queers and other marginalized populations, and the efforts to defeat these bans need to call the attacks for what they are.

"The right wing uses these issues to get people to the polls to vote for their candidates. And it uses its successes to go after other issues, from a woman's right to choose to our school curriculums," said Kors. "If we don't stop this here, these initiatives will result in increased attacks against our community. It's important that we're clear that these attacks are not about marriage at all."

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