Thursday, April 09, 2009


You have to hand it to New England. The former home of Cotton Mather, the Salem witch trials, and Calvin Coolidge is now a hotbed of gay marriage. Our very own Bay State was the first state to secede from Bush America and join Canada, and now Connecticut and Vermont have gone the way of Taxachusetts. Even my own beloved New Hampshire ["Don't take us for granite!"] is now wobbling on the brink, unless Steve Swayne gets his way. Is it something in the water?

Much of the explanation, of course, could be found under the heading "The Revenge of the Summer People." But I have gone on about the Manhattanization of Vermont and the BayState-ification of New Hampshire at length before, so maybe I'll give it a rest for the time being. I can't even begin to use my hobby horse to explain what is up in Iowa; maybe this is what the Music Man meant when he got the town of River City to sing: "Oughta give Iowa a try!"

You have to hand it to Beth Robinson, no matter how much she may put my teeth on edge. When heads of LGBT organization semi-seriously asked whether one wanted to ask a gay man to do something and wait for him to finish carrying on and fussing about it, or ask a lesbian who could just pull up her pick-up and take care of it, I not only got the joke, I had to admit I kind of felt that way myself. But some of the gay vanguard just rub me the wrong way. Nothing against Ms. Robinson in particular [without her we probably wouldn't ever have gotten to civil unions in the US, let alone farther along], but the relentless relentlessness of it all sometimes made me want to lie down and put a cold compress over my eyes.

Well, I guess most people could have seen that coming a mile away once I admitted I thought that the energy going into pursuing the "M word" should be put to getting federal recognition of what we had, not going back to get more where we already got seven-eighths of the loaf. I do still hope that someone will get around to thinking about how to compromise to get what will really make a financial difference to gay couples out there inheriting and wishing they had survivor benefits NOW. Hey, isn't Annie Leibovitz glad that people are ignoring her problems for the greater good of one tiny missing piece of the alphabet?

Well, I guess I'm just a Steve Swayne kind of guy. He's been singing my song for eight years now, and my guess is that he is really not getting any R-E-S-P-E-C-T these days.

Since October of 2001, I've been proposing a different way to move forward in our struggle toward marriage equality. The dominant voices from our community have demanded marriage for gays, and marriage has been the rallying cry ever since we came so close in Hawaii. But some of us want to see something that is at once more radical and more conservative: civil union for all.

It's clearly more radical, because no nation on earth has ever abandoned civil marriage and adopted an alternative. In a debate with an advocate of same-sex marriage, my proposal of civil union for all was dismissed as being so much wishful thinking. We will always have civil marriage, I was told. Really? This same advocate cautioned against filing marriage lawsuits too soon, for fear of suits that may be unwinnable in the courts of law and public opinion. All the while, she cited Hawaii— the suit most gay legal thinkers thought was premature—as the beginning of the current push for gay marriage.

Fifteen years ago, few of us fully envisioned the possibility of gay marriage. Dismissing civil union for all out of hand similarly represents a failure of imagination on the part of leaders in the gay community and elsewhere. After all, civil marriage cannot trace its lineage to the beginnings of ancient civilization. So who's to say that a nation might not one day adopt civil union for all?

And what better nation to do this than the United States? American exceptionalism is part of our birthright. If any nation is poised to reinvent legal relationships on a large scale, it is our great and innovative land. Liberty, justice, and civil union for all....

Time for some self-disclosure. I was formerly the chaplain of a conservative Christian college. I know the religious right fairly well. For many Christians, it's not just the sanctity of marriage colliding with strictures against homosexuality.

Marriage is a mirror that reflects the relationship that Christ has with the Church. And if this metaphorical marriage consecrates two men or two women, who gets impregnated with the Spirit of God?

The religious objection is far deeper than simply maintaining the status quo. It subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) reaffirms the distinction between the sexes and the traditional subservience of one gender to the other. Who can forget how gender-bound our understanding of marriage is? Think of the sentences that are forever wed to the wedding ceremony. "I now pronounce you man and wife" (i.e., master and property). "You may kiss the bride" (more preferential treatment for the groom). For the life of me, I do not comprehend why gay people, of all people, want to buy into this history. Call one another "husband" and "wife" if you choose, but notice how straight couples are beginning to abandon this language in favor of something more egalitarian. There are no gendered expectations in civil union; it skirts the sex-specific baggage of religious marriage. In my book, that's an improvement.

Time for some more self-disclosure. I'm black. And am I the only one to notice that black clergy stayed pretty much out of this struggle until gays won the legal right to use the M-word? In Massachusetts, the Black Ministerial Alliance did not make their voice heard until after the advisory ruling that said that civil union would not do. That was when they stood in opposition, and not a moment before. Those of us who are black and gay often feel that we have to choose which community we will call home.

As the battle for the M-word escalates and as more black clergy speak out against same-sex marriage, I know of one black gay man who is feeling torn between two communities he loves and treasures.

Call me deluded, but I happen to believe that most of the black clergy who are rallying against same-sex marriage would give civil union a pass. We don't know if they would, though, because we haven't asked them. Instead, we cluck our tongues at these unsympathetic black leaders: don't they recognize prejudice when they see it? But maybe we're so blinded by our dogged pursuit of the M-word that we don't see there are other ways of securing equality for all.

So here's my pitch. Civil union won't work if it's only for gays and straights can get married. That's called segregation, and segregation is illegal in America. And I certainly am not opposed to marriage for all. I just happen to prefer civil union for all.

A straight woman asked me: what about straight people who want to say they're married? I asked her: who's stopping them? Gay couples have been using the M-word for quite some time now; we've not waited for the government to give us permission. No one is thrown in jail for saying they're married or civilly united or whatever they choose. Indeed, the champions of same-sex marriage infantilize gay couples by making us feel we are incomplete until Big Brother calls us married. Hogwash.

And to those who accuse me of harboring internalized homophobia, I say: look in the mirror, sweetheart.

I don't need the M-word; why do you need it?

Well, it may be lonely out here in the wilderness, but it's nice to know there is someone over there out of sight who might not think you are crazy. Well, we can hope so, anyway.

Iowa. What's next, Texas?

Hang in there, everyone.

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