APW Pride Week: What You Can Do

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.

Photo of readers Emily & Kristen by Authentic Eye Photography via the APW Flickr Pool

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  • Katie*

    Thank you for sharing! I recently donated to the “Vote No” campaign in Minnesota and got a button for my purse, which is about all I can contribute right now for the cause. While it’s easy to snark on President Obama for his “evolving” stance until he came back around, my mother had the exact same gradual experience of changing her opinion. But bringing this issue forward and talking about it in a respectful way is the best way to change people’s minds, which will hopefully pay off with the amendment’s defeat this November.

    • meg

      Well, Laurel only sort of got into this in the post, but I think it’s totally fictional to believe that Obama’s stance was really evolving. It’s pretty cut and dry (and as a political person, sadly, I think it’s understandable). He was pro-gay marriage when he was in state politics. Then, when he ran for national politics we were still at a point where you could not be pro-gay marriage and get elected (which brings up questions of is it ok to sacrifice being forthright about what you really think on an issue to get you to a position where you can theoretically eventually do some good. I say yes, but I’m jaded on these things). Now he’s got the job, and we’re at a point where he can say he’s pro-gay marriage, so here we are again. I call total bullshit on his actual opinion ever evolving on the subject, though I’m damn glad he was able to come out for it, and I think it’s important, and I made my voice known by writing a very large check to his campaign that day.

      That siad, there ARE people who’s views do gradually evolve, and I have nothing but respect for those people, and everyone who works to keep respectful dialoge open to slowly change hearts and minds.

      • Katie*

        Oops, I was totally not clear at all. I agree absolutely with everything you just said.

        • Jenny

          Exactly. It was a move to win votes. It was not a move to support LGBTQ civil rights. Not really.

          Evolve =\= Retrograde

          Yes, people DO have evolving opinions. That’s awesome! I’m glad they actually take the time to sit down and think about what something means to them, rather than simply accepting to believe what someone feeds them. However, President Obama was NOT one of these people (as Meg stated).

          • meg

            Well, I don’t see it that way. I think he always supported gay rights, but you have to get to a place where you can do something about it. But that’s my politics. I’m very pragmatic.

      • Laurel

        I totally agree with you on this. Obama would have to be THE ONLY PERSON in any US poll who a) didn’t experience a major religious conversion and nevertheless b) changed his mind to oppose marriage equality in the last 20 years. That’s why I think the political organization piece is so important. Obama started supporting marriage equality for the same reason he started opposing it — because it would help him win elections. That makes me feel way, way more safer than if it were just a magnanimous gesture.

        Also: as a political scientist, I completely accept Obama’s need to claim he opposed marriage equality. Presidents are very rarely out front on major social justice issues. They’re pretty much always constrained by the members of their party’s coalition. Obama had to wait until the balance shifted so that motivating enthusiastic marriage equality supporters was more important than holding on to swing voters who opposed marriage equality.

        • meg

          Yes. And thank god it did. And in the meantime, getting him elected was important: repealing DADT, not defending DOMA. We’re making steps. And I don’t even want to think about how bad it could have been.

      • Amy

        I read an interestingly optimistic take on this — a cynic would say he “only” came out in favor of equality because it was politically expedient for him to do so.

        But an optimist would say “Wait…. so that means it’s now politically expedient for the president to be in favor of marriage equality? THAT’S FANTASTIC, right??”

        • meg

          It is fantastic. And besides, he was originally (and probably personally always) for it.

        • Laurel

          That is EXACTLY how I feel. Nice as it is when individual politicians take risks, it is WAY WAY BETTER to have support for marriage equality be a political winner.

  • Lizzie

    Totally badass, Laurel. Thanks for the clarity here and congratulations on your engagement!

    • Laurel


  • SusieQ

    I’m not usually one reach out to elected officials, because I’m kind of lazy, but I actually did so today, inspired by this post. In case anyone else is a bit of a newbie at this, here is a good website to find out information about how to contact a variety of government officials, y’all:


    • KM

      Thank you!

  • Other Katelyn

    Some of the most important actionable steps are less obviously about politics, too. Give your business to vendors and companies who support gay rights. Speak up when you hear people ignorantly or knowingly gay-bashing. Do some serious introspection about your own biases and behavior.

    • meg

      YES. Particularly where you put your money, and how you speak to people who are gay bashing. These things really make a difference over time.

    • Laurel

      It means so much to me when straight people go out of their way to avoid supporting companies that oppose queer rights. Really. So much. I have also found it tremendously meaningful when straight friends include Lambda Legal or NCLR or another marriage equality organization on charitable registries, not just because of the money raised but because they’re publicly communicating to more conservative family members where they stand even though they don’t have to.

      • MDBethann

        I figure if I’m not going to support companies like BP & Exxon for harming the environment (even though I’m not a bird), I shouldn’t patronize companies (like a certain pizza chain and a chick’n restaurant) that discriminate against gay people (even though I’m straight) by associating with not-for-profits and other groups that claim to support “families” when they really just work to keep people from legally forming families.

        I obviously have 2 companies in mind already, but does anyone know of a link or a list of gay-friendly (i.e. Starbucks) vs. anti-gay companies so those of us interested in doing so can vote with our pocketbooks?

        • HRC has a buyer’s guide that rates companies on LGBT-friendliness: http://www.hrc.org/apps/buyersguide/.

          • meg

            Super helpful, y’all! Also, how nice is it to see a company you like with a green (highest) score?

      • Chloe

        Thank you for this very thoughtful and informative piece, and congratulations to you and your fiance – your last sentence made me teary, too! I just today, completely by chance, learned about a great company that does wedding registries, Replacements, Ltd (http://www.replacements.com/), and found the NY Times coverage of their stand against the NC marriage amendment: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/business/replacements-limiteds-stand-for-gay-marriage-draws-repercussions.html. I will absolutely be registering with them (filling in my grandma’s china set!) and writing a letter of support. As a straight person getting married I think it’s absolutely necessary to acknowledge the political atmosphere surrounding marriage at this time, and to support marriage equality with my wedding dollars and words and actions.

      • I think similar to this idea of not supporting large corporations, and as “Other Katelyn” mentions, is vendors. The vendor directory is small for Michigan, just two, but I’ve taken to asking possible vendors if they read APW and support the Sanity Pledge (Meg, I hope this is okay). I’m a little nervous that I will be disappointed if our top choice photographers turn out not to.

  • Not Sarah

    I unfortunately cannot vote (not a US citizen), but I’ve decided that if I can’t vote, the very least I can do is donate money to the WA campaign (http://washingtonunitedformarriage.org/). I think it’s ridiculous that you pay health insurance premiums with post-tax instead of pre-tax money*, so I want to help make that not be the case.

    I also might go see Wicked since that seems like a cool idea (it being in support of the Washington United for Marriage campaign) and I haven’t seen it yet!

    Also: I love the dress of the woman on the left in this photo! (Okay and the one on the right too…)

    *I know that’s just one example, but that is one that I see every time I look at the health insurance company’s brochure, which is actually quite often.

  • Kerry

    While I think this post is incredibly important and has some great points, I still don’t think it’s appropriate to call the president an asshole. Perhaps the word politician would be a better choice?

    • Laurel

      I don’t think those words are synonymous! But to be clear, I also don’t think the president is an asshole. I’m describing my cranky, bitter, not-the-best-version-of-myself reaction to the president’s announcement, and explaining why I felt that way.

    • Michelle

      I read that sentence as playing on the “Opinions are like assholes…” saying, not that the writer was specifically calling Barack Obama an asshole.

  • Lori

    Thank you for this story, Laurel. I recently called up a lawyer to try and figure how to “do this marriage-like-thing right”, only to find out how much is in the air. It was unsettling to someone like me who likes to find clear-cut procedures and follow the rules to a T. Who knows what will happen in the future? Across state-lines? Abroad? With children? With dissolution? (knocks on wood) It’s a little bewildering.

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one wading into far deeper waters than I originally believed them to be.

  • The poli sci major in me LOVES this post. Thank you so much for writing it. People (myself included) often get frustrated with politics because there is so much injustice and it feels like there’s nothing they can do as individuals to change it. We live in a very big world thanks to globalization, but there is still so much that gets accomplished on a grassroots level. So get out there and start talking. Wear a button. Write a letter. Knock on doors. Put your own name on the ballot. You’d be surprised by just how powerful and persuasive your voice can be.

  • Amanda

    I am a Mainer and volunteering in the marriage eqaulity campaign here so I can get (legally) married next year. The biggest strategy used this campaign is having one on one conversations with voters who are on the fence about this issue, and engaging with them in respectful dialogue about why this is important to my family. I cannot stress enough how much having conversations with friends and family can make a difference. Sometimes, when I’m talking to random people on the phone, they say they have a gay friend or family member, but they don’t think marriage is that important to them. What statistics show is that in reality, they have just never talked about it. Having conversations one voter at a time is what will turn the tide on this issue. Maine polling data is saying just that.

    • Laurel

      It’s the Harvey Milk strategy, and it is a big big winner. The #1 predictor of supporting marriage equality is having a same-sex couple within your family/friend group. Having conversations with your family and friends, telling them about your queer friends and how important their rights are to you — these are direct things anyone can do that have long-term political consequences.

      Also: I have queer friends for whom marriage equality is not a high priority. Every one of them would be hurt to have family voting against marriage equality.

  • MDBethann

    I live in MD and plan on voting FOR marriage equality. Anyone know where I can get some yard signs???

    • Depending on where you live, equality MD just opened up two new offices, one in Baltimore City and one in Silver Spring. I know you can get some there if you just stop by. I am sure there will be more localized stuff happening as these offices get settled.

  • Lucky me, I live in Massachusetts, but even here we have to keep marriage equality on the front burner, be visible, be loud, be proud. Our governor, mayor and many religious group walked in our annual Pride March.

    One good way to keep equality visible is to wear a White Knot; people always ask what it’s for and educating folks one questioner at a time is a really terrific way to strengthen the position. Don’t know about the White Knot? Here you go: http://whiteknot.org/

  • J+1

    The last line of this post made me cry. Thank you for reminding us that everyone can help, in ways big and small.

  • Heather L

    If I recall correctly, gay marriage won in the public polls in New Jersey, but then Chris Christie vetoed it like the asshole he his.

    Also an above poster mentioned avoiding anti-gay businesses. I’ve been avoiding Chick-fil-A for that reason, but can you name other businesses I shouldn’t grace with my custom?

    • meg

      Someone linked to a great HRC listing of businesses above!

    • Parsley

      I’m afraid I don’t know the specifics of the NJ story but I do know that there is a distinction between having a majority in polls – which has happened a bunch – and winning an actual referendum vote – which hasn’t happened anywhere in the country or so the activist organizations still say is true.

      • Laurel

        Polling on marriage equality is complicated and hard to interpret. A clear (large) majority nationwide and in most states favors some protection for same-sex couples. Typically, offering poll respondents three options (marriage, civil unions, nothing) means you get a 3-way split with no clear majority, although many civil union supporters have switched to marriage recently. See also, Barack Obama.

        The numbers you get in polling are also different from the numbers in any specific election. For example, the NC referendum was held during a primary with no big-ticket Democratic race. That meant a smaller, more politically active, more Republican electorate than you’ll get in the fall — all contributing factors to the referendum’s passage.

        Meanwhile, Christie is an example of a different dynamic. He’s a Republican: there’s an active faction in his party that intensely opposes marriage equality. Even though a majority of NJ voters supported marriage equality, he was worried that NJ primary voters or national Republican primary voters (if he runs for president) would see it as a deal-breaker and he either wouldn’t get re-elected or wouldn’t be a successful presidential candidate. This is why pro-equality Republicans are so important. Christie was in a position to veto this bill, and he did. If he’d had a pro-equality faction to worry about, he might have made a different choice.

  • N

    Thank you for sharing your story. Right after reading this, I registered to vote. I looked up the businesses that do not support LGBT equal rights and my money will no longer be going to them. I also plan to join my school’s LGBT and Straight Alliance Club this upcoming semester. I am re-energized. I am inspired. Thank you once again. We can do this! :)

  • MadGastronomer

    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.

    So much this. All around me, the straight people were so excited, and I just went meh.

    Also, Gregoire, at least, wasn’t looking for future support from the pro-equality faction of Dems. She isn’t running again. It wasn’t expedience, except inasmuch as that, knowing she wasn’t running again, she knew she couldn’t take any backlash for it.

  • Amanda

    As a Washingtonian, I have the privelage of voting YES to uphold our gay marraige law. I’d like to point out that this is also Christine Gregoire’s last term as govenor, so she may feel that she can do something as politically risky as supporting gay marraige.

  • Amy

    I love that you reacted so meh-ish upon hearing Obama’s endorsement. I loathe the whole political discussion surrounding marriage because I don’t think the government should even be involved in any way. It’s all well and good for politicians to be in favour of same-sex marriage, but I would love to hear one say, “the State actually shouldn’t have the power to deny or grant marriage rights to consenting adults.”

    When, inevitably, same-sex marriage is federally legalized, are we going to be expected to thank all those government officials for allowing us the right to marry who we want? As if they ever should have been able to deny that right at all?

    FYI I’m a straight Canadian and my very conservative province fought tooth and nail against the federal government regarding same-sex marriage. However, 7+ years after national legalization, the discussion doesn’t really exist anymore. I mean, I’m sure many people are still opposed to it, but it appears as if they’ve realized that it doesn’t affect them at all (DUH!).