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On Gay Marriage and Family Issues, A Change is Gonna Come

Today's post is from Karen Kahn and Patricia A. Gozemba, co-authors, with Marilyn Humphries, of Courting Equality: A Documentary History of America's First Legal Same-Sex Marriages. The former editor of Sojourner: The Women's Forum, Karen Kahn also edited Frontline Feminism: Essays from Sojourner's First Twenty Years. A former professor of English and Women's Studies, Patricia A. Gozemba is the coauthor of Pockets of Hope: How Students and Teachers Change the World. Kahn and Gozemba were married in September 2005. Watch their new video at

Courting Equality Book Cover, links to Beacon Press page for book Last week, America voted for hope, not fear. For peace, not war. For love, not hatred. The election of Barack Obama represents what is best in the American spirit---fairness, equality, respect for hardworking people, a belief in a better tomorrow. It has been a long time coming. As Obama has said again and again over the last 21 months, America is a nation defined by its continued desire to form "a more perfect union."

Unfortunately, for the LGBT community, voters who went to the polls in record numbers on Tuesday, voted their fears on the issues that matter to us most—respect for our families. We lost votes on marriage equality in three states: California, Florida and Arizona. And in Arkansas, voters banned unmarried couples from serving as foster or adoptive parents. This measure, clearly aimed at gay families, is perhaps the most damaging of this year's initiatives in that it so blatantly carries the message that gay people are harmful to children.

If history provides any lessons, Arkansas and the nation can be heartened by the Massachusetts story. In 1986, when a similar policy was introduced in Massachusetts, it galvanized the LGBT community. In our book Courting Equality, we tell the story of how the Massachusetts foster care controversy set our community on the path toward full equality—culminating in Massachusetts becoming the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. Arkansas homophobes beware!

In the big showdown of this year's anti-gay ballot initiatives, Californians voted 52 to 48 percent to ban same-sex marriage in their constitution. With this vote, California became the first state to take away the civil right of marriage from its LGBT citizens. As in Arkansas, fears of children being indoctrinated into the "homosexual lifestyle" pushed the majority to reject full equality for LGBT families.

I watched this campaign play out through my daily Google alerts for "courting equality." An article titled "What Gay Marriage Has Done to Massachusetts," by Mass Resistance director Brian Camenker, has been circulating all over the right-wing blogosphere. In the article, Camenker says that taxpayer dollars were being used to put a slick, hardcover book on gay marriage (Courting Equality) in every Massachusetts public school library. Though an outright lie—the book was offered free to high school libraries through generous private donations—the article played on the fears of heterosexual parents that their children might "turn gay,"or for that matter, even respect gay people.

Unfortunately, marriage equality activists in California didn't use Courting Equality---or their own recent marriages--with the same effectiveness to demonstrate the dignity and love in their families and the positive effect on their children of having the security of "marriage." Everyone from Joe the plumber to emergency room technicians understands the import of the word "marriage."In their campaign to win Tuesday's vote, television ads raised abstract principles of fairness to convince voters not to "take away rights." But these ads didn't feature our families---the parents and kids most affected by this reversal of rights. In Massachusetts, it was our stories that moved the public to embrace equality. We didn't win by hiding the reality of gay lives—we won by arguing that love is universal and that our families deserve the same rights, benefits, and legal protections of every other family in the commonwealth.

The good news is that, though, the California decision is a blow to the dignity of gay people and their families, it does not affect their legal rights, which are protected by California's domestic partnership law. Nonetheless, to be told by your fellow citizens that your relationships, your families, somehow are not as good as theirs, definitely hurts. Gay people in California, as in other states with domestic partnership and civil unions, remain second-class citizens, relegated to a separate-but-equal relationship status. For that matter, even married couples in Massachusetts and Connecticut will remain, at the federal level, second-class citizens. As a consequence of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act signed by Bill Clinton, the over 1138 federal rights and benefits granted to heterosexual married couples currently remain out of reach for married same-sex couples.

Though Tuesday's anti-gay marriage votes are daunting, change is coming. In California, young people voted overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage. In Connecticut, same-sex couples will begin marrying on November 12. As a wedding present the Connecticut electorate voted overwhelmingly not to open a Constitutional Convention and take away their state's newest civil right—marriage equality.

And President-elect Obama has now seen how his own unwillingness to embrace full equality for LGBT people has been used to write discrimination into the California constitution. I'm guessing it was a lesson he won't easily forget. In Washington, he has the opportunity to right that wrong by supporting repeal of DOMA and embracing a federal domestic partnership law that, as a first step, will grant the rights and benefits of marriage to all LGBT families nationwide.

That will be a new beginning. But the struggle for full equality—for marriage—must continue. For now Massachusetts and Connecticut are holding the fort. But there is still hope on the horizon in Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, and yes, again, in California. Yes we can.