With the first marriages in New York, the attendant ocean of joy and sense of turning-point experienced by gay and non-gay people alike across the country, and the first-ever congressional hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act (the bill to repeal the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act) all in the past few weeks, the freedom to marry proved the one major topic to break through the gloomy and terrifying debt ceiling and get people talking.
One of those people was Larry Kramer, whose jarring quote in The New York Times seemed at odds with the happiness and wonder, and historic significance, of so much momentum in the right direction on marriage.
Larry subsequently elaborated on, and clarified, his truncated Times quote in The Advocate – and I sympathized. It’s often hard to get people to consider and hold two thoughts at the same time… and yet that is what the New York win requires.
The two thoughts: (1) ending exclusion from marriage in New York is an epic advance and historic achievement, bringing real tangible and intangible gains to many, and (2) it is not enough; we have marriage discrimination by 44 more states and the federal government still to topple.
Another way to express those two thoughts is to think of them in terms of the two layers of marriage discrimination same-sex couples endure: (1) denial of marriage licenses by the states, which in the first instance govern marriage and who gets married, and (2) unfair and harsh unequal treatment of lawfully married couples by the federal government under the “gay exception” imposed by so-called “DOMA.”
Between winning and celebrating in New York in late June and then the first happy marriages on Sunday, July 24, the occasion that prompted Larry’s abbreviated and much-criticized quote in the Times, I testified in Congress , and said this:
Mr. Chairman, in just four days, same-sex couples will begin marrying in New York, the result of both Democratic-led and Republican-led legislative chambers approving, and the governor signing into law, a simple bill ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. Beginning this Sunday, Americans will watch on television as these couples, some of whom have been together forty, fifty -- in the case of one couple who contacted Freedom to Marry, Richard Dorr and John Mace, sixty-one -- years, express their love and have their commitment celebrated by family and friends and confirmed by the state. As these joyous couples join in marriage, they will at the same time become the newest Americans who experience first-hand the sting of discrimination by the federal government. They will endure the intangible yet very real pain of once again being deemed a second-class citizen by Congress, and suffer the tangible harm of being excluded from the safety-net of protections and responsibilities that their heterosexual married family members and friends cherish.
Freedom to Marry’s national strategy, the Roadmap to Victory , calls for intense and sustained work on a synergistic interplay of three tracks: (1) winning marriage in more states (like New York), (2) growing the majority for marriage (as we hosted leading pollsters for George W. Bush and President Obama to discuss this week at the National Press Club), and (3) ending federal marriage discrimination (as our bill in Congress and our campaign to create a climate around the courts aims to do).
Sometimes I am asked why we need to work to win marriage in more states, get more people married, elevate their stories, and spend time and energy and resources persuading more Americans to join the majority for marriage we have, over time, created. Why not, some people suggest, just focus on the federal?
This goes back to those two thoughts.
(1) People get married by states, not the federal government. And even though states are bound by the U.S. Constitution, to get its command of equality enforced requires, ultimately, empowering and emboldening politicans and/or judges, including Supreme Court justices, not just to read, but to uphold, the law.
And (2) federal officials such as members of Congress, the President, and, yes, Supreme Court justices come from somewhere (i.e., states) and are influenced by the climate and momentum we create. The best way to maximize our chances of winning in the Supreme Court and Congress is by advances in the states and public opinion.
So…winning New York was enormous, and not enough . The couples who celebrate their love and commitment in New York, DC, Iowa, New Hampshire, or other states are now as married as any people on the planet, even as they still face discrimination. New York more than doubled the number of Americans who live in a state where gay people share in the freedom to marry, from 16 to 35 million, and it’s our job to turn their lived reality and ensuing ripples and conversations into waves and wins.
If we are serious, we now redouble our campaign , our contributions, and our conversations of persuasion as we work to secure what all of us deserve: America’s promise of liberty and justice for all, and an equal shot at the pursuit of happiness that sweetens our days on the earth. As I said when we won New York – lots to celebrate, lots to do.