Introduction to the 2013 Paperback Edition: Marriage

Excerpts about the passage of equal marriage:

As I was writing this preface [to the paperback edition] in November 2012, Washington state citizens were determining the fate of what was called Referendum 74. The vote was to decide whether all adults in the state should have an equal civil right to marry the person they love. The state Legislature had approved the idea, but now the voters had their chance at approving or vetoing what the Legislature had decided. Although six states and the District of Columbia had already legalized same-sex marriage, it had been courts or legislatures that had made those decisions.  Each time voters had a direct chance at the decision, majorities rejected same-sex marriages.

In that respect, the situation in Washington at the end of 2012 was similar to that encountered three decades earlier when, in 1978, Seattle voters had to decide the outcome of Initiative 13. That anti-gay initiative would have repealed the city council’s decision to add “sexual orientation” to the list of types of citizens who could not be discriminated against in housing or employment. Across the country, opponents of civil rights protections for gays and lesbians had successfully overturned every similar decision by a city council. (The story of how Seattle became one of the first cities to retain its protections, breaking the opposition’s national campaign, is told in Chapter 14 of Gay Seattle.)

A campaign about and a vote by a majority upon the rights of a minority is, of course, a peculiar idea, especially when that majority has been deeply trained by particular historical or cultural blinders to see possibilities only one way – in the case of Referendum 74 the possibility of what “marriage” meant. For me, having been raised as a Southerner during the civil rights days of the 1960s, the campaign brought to mind the movie, The Help, which earlier in 2012 had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The plot of The Help focused on a fictional white women’s bridge club in the 1960s that was planning a  “Home Help Sanitation Initiative.” That initiative would have insured that all white families employing African-American maids and nannies provide them with outside toilets. That way, the black women could then be banned from soiling the inside bathrooms being used by the whites. The woman promoting the initiative, a character named Hilly, feared that allowing the black maids to use the same toilets would infect white families with disease and threaten the whites’ identity as superior.

Her solution: Separate, but supposedly “equal” toilets. But, of course, they were not really equal if they were still outside the home instead of inside the home. That very notion of being outside or inside is, of course, what the stories in Gay Seattle track.

As related in Chapter 7 of this book, as early as 1971 gay activists in Seattle – tipped off by a supportive state legislator named Pete Francis – had realized that state law did not actually define

Campaign image from Washington United for Marriage
Campaign image from Washington United for Marriage

“marriage” as having to be between a man and a woman. The law referred only to “persons of the age of 18 who are otherwise capable.” It was the cultural blinder that assumed the persons involved must be a Jack and a Jill, not a Jack and a Jack. One activist, who had taken on the name of Faygele benMiriam — his real name was John Singer — promptly filed for a marriage license with a friend, Paul Barwick. In what would then become the basic message that would echo through the subsequent four decades until the 2012 referendum, they told the journalists who showed up for the inevitable rejection by the county clerk that they were simply “two human beings who happen to be in love and want to get married.”

When they were denied that right, they sued. To wiggle its way out, the state Court of Appeals had to construct its own blinders about marriage, which it then defined as being for the “procreation and rearing of children.” The Court added that the prohibition of marriage for same-sex couples “results from the impossibility of procreation.”

That logic was possibly applicable to 18th or 19th century forms of arranged marriages designed to perpetuate families and control over property. But it was one that already had been replaced by the prevailing 20th century ideal that emphasized romantic love and union between the two people involved, without regard to whether they procreated or not.

For more than two decades afterward in Washington state, the issue idled as lesbians and gay men focused their journey toward a public voice in other, more pressing arenas – rights to not be discriminated against in jobs and in housing; to use public accommodations openly like everyone else; to have health care that did not presume they were perverts; to build new social groups that would end their isolation; to create businesses; to cope with crises such as Initiative 13 or AIDS; to change the minds of churches that had theologically cast them aside; to seek an honorable equality in the nation’s military. The tasks were many and even mighty, but they were also quite focused on rights that could be exercised individually – the individual gay man who should not be discriminated against in a job, the individual lesbian who should be able to rent an apartment, the individual person with AIDS needing to access good health care. Recognition of relationships was another matter, something that gays and lesbians in Washington state were reminded of in 1998 when the state Legislature passed a “Defense of Marriage Act” that put an end to that old law benMiriam and Barwick had used. Marriage, the new law dictated, could only be between a man and a woman.

By the turn of the 21st Century, the progress had been such that many lesbian and gay couples had actually begun to feel quite supported by their heterosexual friends and accepted within their

Business support for equal marriage rights would be crucial
Business support for equal marriage rights would be crucial

families, even if the law had not kept pace with what seemed to be greater social acceptance. That had been a significant turnabout from the stories that seemed to dominate in the 1970s when couples, especially lesbian ones, often had to fear their families. That was especially so if one or both of the partners had young children they wanted to bring into the same household with their spouse. In 1972, for example, one of the organizers of Seattle’s first Gay Women’s Resource Center, had commented that “many people have never heard of a ‘lesbian mother’” and could not even grasp “the concept of a lesbian with children” – so strong was the notion that lesbians and gay men sat completely outside any possibility of marriage, family, or procreation….

By contrast, an openly lesbian professor at the Jesuits’ Seattle University — Jodi O’Brien — would write in 2004 that she and her lesbian partner always happily attended the Mormon weddings of her six siblings. They were, as she put it, “two lesbians in an extended family of prolific heterosexual Mormons.” O’Brien knew that as a lesbian couple, she and her partner were  “separate but not equal” in the eyes of the law, but within her extended family, she felt “separate and acknowledged.”

O’Brien, as a sociologist, reflected on that: “As many lesbian and gay families have discovered through difficult legal and social entanglements…when a situation of inequality exists, ‘acknowledgement’ is at the whim of those who hold power.”

“The current ‘marriage wars,’” she continued, “can be viewed and analyzed as a battle to define complete inclusion in U.S. culture. For many supporters of same-sex marriage, the battle is about the simple justice of being able to define one’s own family and have this definition recognized and respected as a basic human right…. For others, the battle is about who holds the power to determine justice in any form – what some observers have referred to as the ‘just-us’ justice defined by those who see themselves as the keepers of a predetermined cultural truth.”

That was why the law on marriage needed changing.

The Washington state Supreme Court upheld the Legislature’s restriction of marriage to a man and a woman, but in doing so three of the justices who were in the slender five-justice majority urged the Legislature to consider what to do about obviously committed gay and lesbian couples – what, in other words, to do about queer romances.

By 2007, pushed by an emergent group of gay and lesbian lawmakers, the Legislature relented just enough to approve a solution that would still keep gays and lesbians outside – but get them a little closer to the house. It agreed to allow “domestic partnerships” with very limited civil rights to be recognized statewide. In 2008, the Legislature had added to the number of state-level civil rights that could be attached to the “domestic partnership.”

That adoption of domestic partnerships had been a step in the right direction and one that had been pursued in an incremental fashion by lesbian and gay activists and legislators. Better something close but still outside than nothing at all.

Opponents had tried to overturn the Legislature’s decision through a statewide vote, but had failed. So the issue sat for three years in a détente of sorts.

Then, in 2012, the state Legislature, again prodded by activists, legislators and a changing climate of opinion, finally agreed to allow the word “marriage” to be used to define same-sex couples. Governor Christine Gregoire, who had initially opposed the idea, had changed her mind. She actively promoted and signed the new law. Immediately, opponents had called for a referendum on whether a majority of citizens would uphold the law. They would turn to the National Organization for Marriage for help, because that group had been engineering defeats for same-sex marriage throughout the country. It was well funded by the Roman Catholic Church. By summer the opponents had collected enough signatures to force the vote and the campaign was on.

In one particularly powerful scene in The Help, an African-American maid hears the white women openly talking about the inferiority of black citizens like her, especially the danger of their hygiene. All she can do is listen. During the months leading up to the vote in Washington state, as I watched the “vote no” referendum ads talk about gay and lesbian relationships and try to raise fears about what would happen if they were recognized as “marriages,” I was often reminded of that scene. Didier Erbion in his book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self offered insights about the phenomenon of others who hold the power of acknowledgement talking about those who do not. Erbion observed that through that act of language – the power of acknowledgement and of insult – those who are considered “queer” discover that they are “a person about whom something can be said, to whom something can be said, someone who can be looked at or talked about a certain way and who is stigmatized by that gaze and those words.” The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had put the sensation this way: “It is as if a page of a book suddenly became conscious and felt itself being read aloud without being able to read itself.”

That was what The Help had potently depicted: the black maids listening to the white children they had raised discuss them as if they were simply pages of a book to be read aloud.

The R-74 campaign turned out to be similar: It put same-sex relationships and their families onto a page – or into a television

Media often endorsed equal marriage while portraying "safe" same-sex couples
Media often endorsed equal marriage while portraying “safe” same-sex couples

commercial — and read them aloud to make them either fit, or not fit, a majority viewpoint about marriage. If gay and lesbian relationships were recognized, the anti-gay ads said, parents who objected to same-sex marriages being discussed in schools might be arrested. People who owned businesses and refused to accommodate lesbian receptions might be fined and forced to sell. Individuals who expressed support for traditional heterosexual marriage might be fired from their jobs.  Even the pro-74 ads urging marriage equality mostly featured supportive heterosexual couples talking about same-sex couples and their families, presumably because that was more politically effective than same-sex couples talking about themselves.

Lesbian and gay romances were being read aloud and the argument was about a singular word – “marriage” – a word that conveyed not only civil rights, but more importantly, packed cultural and historical power. Why, I had to wonder, had this quest against the odds, the quest to achieve “marriage,” become such a central identifying feature of the queer movement in Seattle and Washington state — as well as across the nation — by the early part of the 21st century? …

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