Sometimes I forget that not everyone is naturally a political animal. I know that seems obvious, but as someone whose first love was politics (cut to Meg age twelve, shushing the household so she could listen to nonstop NPR coverage of Bill Clinton’s election), second love was theatre, and third love is mixing storytelling and politics here at APW, sometimes I forget. So as we near the end of APW Pride Week—a week that has volleyed between the universality of our human experience, both gay and straight, and the need for serious political change in this country—I wanted to drive home actionable steps. Because all of us have a job to do. Maybe it’s to write a letter to our elected representative. Maybe it’s to be a vocal opposition in our own political party. Maybe it’s to work to change hearts and minds around us (because hearts and minds are votes and poll data points). So here is Laurel to discuss what you can do, and why it really matters.
When Barack Obama announced that he was cool with me getting married, I was surprised by how little I felt. Look, another asshole with an opinion. Despite the historic nature of the announcement, despite my genuine respect for this particular president, despite the power of having a sitting US president support legal protections for my relationship, and despite how thrilled my mother, father, sister, brother, and grandmother were, I was tired of hearing what other people thought about my relationship. It was very much like Aubrey Hirsch’s experience of being pregnant and feeling exhausted from hearing people talk about women’s bodies—her body and her choices—like they had some say. Pleased as I am that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Arne Duncan, and Jay Z support my relationship, part of me just wants them to shut up because they are not involved.
Two weeks later, my partner and I sat down with a lawyer for a ninety-minute tour of the law as it relates to our relationship. Turns out, mostly the law is confusing about our relationship. The laws are different in almost every state. The federal government won’t recognize our marriage but might (sometimes) treat us like we’re married for (some) tax purposes if we live in some states. If we have kids, whoever doesn’t give birth will have to adopt the kid at a cost between $500 and $5000, which the IRS will sometimes but not always refund. The lawyer also told us that, should I be offered a job after grad school in a state that won’t allow adoption by the second parent, our best bet is (I am not kidding) to move away for a year so we can have the kid and do the adoption in a different state. But who knows, maybe that’ll change by the time I graduate.
I thought we were going to the lawyer to learn about The Law. Instead, it drove home to me that our situation is much less about law and much more about politics. The law comes from the actions of people: the 1996 Congress that passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the California Supreme Court that ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the 52% of California voters in ‘08 who voted against it, and all the other court decisions, legislative actions, and referenda of the last few decades.
Marriage straddles the tension between the intensely private and the thoroughly public. It’s about love and sex and vulnerability, but it’s also a legal contract and a public declaration. Even for straight couples those messages can be confusing: Is your wedding for you or for your family? Is your marriage a totally private decision—as my parents believed, with their seven-person wedding—or is your community part of it? The conflict between the private and the public is just that much more epic for queer couples. It’s not just our parents and churches and friends; it’s the president.
The truth is, we’re all involved with each other. That’s the whole point of politics. With that in mind, I thought I’d give you all some ideas on how you can help with the state of American marriage politics because, whether you’re queer or not, you, like Barack Obama, are involved. As a result of the frankly strange American political system, which divides power between the state and the federal governments, states make most decisions about who can get married. So far, most states with same-sex marriage have passed it via the courts; a few have passed it via legislation. So far, we have not won a single public referendum, though that may change this fall: Washington and Maryland have shiny new marriage laws that are beating the anti-equality folks in current polls; Maine has a ballot initiative that would legalize marriage equality; and there’s an anti-marriage referendum in Minnesota that’s currently down in the polls. So. You live in WA, MD, MN, or ME? You actually get to directly vote on whether I could get married if I moved there. Please do.
For those who live elsewhere, it’s a longer game focused on electing state-level politicians who will support marriage equality. Now a disclaimer: I know that a significant portion of APW readers, and even Americans, fall somewhere else outside of the political party system (Independent, Libertarian, Green Party?) but it’s almost impossible to talk about the politics of marriage equality without talking about political parties. Barack Obama and Washington governor Christine Gregoire didn’t switch to the pro-equality side (or in Obama’s case, switch back) just because they suddenly got smarter or kinder. Instead, they started feeling pressure from within their (Democratic) party to support marriage equality. There’s a faction in the Democratic Party for which marriage equality really matters; Obama and Gregoire want that faction’s enthusiastic support. If you are inclined to vote for Democrats, you can support marriage equality by communicating to your state legislators—via letter or phone call, via donation, or by volunteering—that when they support marriage equality, you get enthusiastic.
There is, sadly, no such substantial faction in the Republican Party. For a variety of structural and political reasons, it’s easy for a minority party to block legislation (most obviously in the US Senate, but also often in state legislatures). That means that as long as Republicans have no organized coalition member in favor of marriage equality, it’s going to be a lot harder to get national-level change. So, if you’re a Republican, please please try to find pro-equality legislators to support within the Republican Party. Vote for them in primaries. Send them letters.
You’ll notice that I didn’t talk about national politicians. My best guess is that marriage equality at the national level will be decided by the Supreme Court, and more specifically by Anthony Kennedy, who’s the swing justice. It’s hard to influence the Supreme Court, but they do tend to look at public opinion and trends in local laws in making their decisions. When you work on state-level politics or talk to your parents about marriage equality, you’re working on national politics too.
Cranky as I sometimes get, when I’m at my best I feel grateful to live at a time when things are changing so fast you can practically see it happen. I feel grateful that people—friends and strangers—really care about this. I feel grateful that I don’t have to wonder what my grandmother would do if I announced I’d be marrying a woman, because I know: she started telling everyone she met about how she was getting a new granddaughter.