Notes from the Front Lines of the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage
In order to dedicate all energy to
my book on same-sex marriage,
I’ve suspended further blogging here.
Yet I invite you to read the weblog entries for
February, March, and April 2004.
April 15, 2004:
In the late afternoon of Tax Day, demonstrators from Marriage Equality New York carry posters on the steps of the General Post Office at Eighth Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets in Manhattan, hoping to capture attention as the media cover taxpayers scurrying to mail tax returns at the last moment:
“All the Taxes, None of the Rights”
“Law-Abiding, Tax-Paying, Second-Class Citizen”
“Marriage – Anything Less is Less Than Equal”
“Reason No. 1040 of 1,049: Unlimited Marital Deductions”
“Taxes Paid, Rights Denied”
The clamor in front of the GPO overwhelms the group. A circus of ambassadors from Billionaires for Bush and the New Democratic Majority protest the Administration’s tax policies. Snapple agents in bright yellow lemon costumes distribute free bottles of lemon aid. The Westin New York at Times Square displays a sidewalk room suite with signs announcing that “Procrastination Finally Pays Off: The Westin Heavenly Bed.” Eight or so mobile post offices line the street, punctuated by a Mister Softee truck hawking shakes and cones.
A Marriage Equality demonstrator agrees to an interview:
Q: What is your name?
A: Jim Hohl. I’m the Vice Chair of Marriage Equality New York.
Q: Why are you here today?
A: As tax-paying U.S. citizens and New York State residents, we are equally entitled to the benefits and rights of marriage under the law. We pay taxes as single individuals, even when many of us are in marital situations that aren’t recognized by the U.S. or New York State.
Q: Do you know more specifically how the tax circumstance of gay couples would be improved if they had the same rights as heterosexual couples?
A: I’m not sure about the tax situation per se, and I’m not necessarily focusing on that. The point is that under the law, we are required to fulfill certain duties as citizens, which we do fulfill. And we’re not given the same respect in return. When those of us who are married in other jurisdictions like Canada – and soon Massachusetts – when we do file our federal taxes, we may be perjuring ourselves by saying we’re single when in fact we’re not. That’s a serious legal issue that needs to be resolved. It’s not so much whether we’d have any benefit by filing jointly. There are disputes over whether that’s beneficial or not. I’m not an accountant and don’t claim to be. [He smiles.] It’s just a matter of fairness. We’re just saying, “We do what we’re supposed to do. Do what’s right by us.”
Q: How long have you been involved with Marriage Equality?
A: Two and a half years.
Q: And what are your responsibilities?
A: As Vice Chair, I have some general responsibilities. I’m also responsible for events and education. I’m responsible for the website. We put out a lot of information over our website. It’s a treasure trove of information and facts on marriage, like what’s the difference between civil unions and civil marriage. And also we just put on a big event at the Javits Center [see this blog’s entry of March 21]. The Same-Sex Wedding Expo, which was attended by over 21,000 people, versus last year when we had about 800. So the issue has exploded onto the scene. We had caterers and florists and limousines – everything you could need to plan your wedding. The people who were there felt that there was nothing different between what they were doing and what other couples do in similar circumstances.
Q: How did you initially become interested in Marriage Equality?
A: I had a personal interest at first. At the time I was in a committed relationship with a person from another country. Obviously, if we were an opposite-sex couple in a committed relationship, he would have been able to stay here. Given the fact that we were of the same gender, we didn’t have that option available to us. So I decided that it was time in my life to start making sure that if it came to that point, that that option was available to me.
Q: Had you been active in gay rights issues before then?
A: No, I had not.
Q: So that was your first involvement?
Q: And you’ve stayed with it?
Q: As a volunteer?
A: Oh we’re a 100 percent volunteer. Yes.
Q: So you have a “day job”?
A: I have a couple of “day jobs”! And I have a full-time job with Marriage Equality – that doesn’t pay a cent. [He laughs.]
Q: How much time, on average, do you spend volunteering for Marriage Equality?
A: It really depends from week to week. During the Expo, it was non-stop for the months before. When the issue sort of exploded in New York, we were the ones leading the charge. We had the big press conference with Gifford Miller [see this blog’s entry of February 29]. That whole week required non-stop media attention. So it goes in waves.
Q: What’s the size of the basic core of volunteers who’ve been around for some time running the organization?
A: Again, that varies as well. There are people in the periphery who are there once in a while when we need them. Plus there’s a core of committed volunteers. It really fluctuates. At the Expo, for instance, we had 30 to 40 people show up to give us a hand.
Q: Over the two years or so that you’ve been involved, what’s been the core of people in charge – as opposed to those attending – who’ve been there reliably month after month?
A: Probably a core of like ten or twelve people. No more. With some turnover. But that was when the issue was dormant. We were trying to make the issue an issue. Now that the issue is out there and has a life of its own, we’ve seen a lot more people come into the regular core of volunteers.
Q: Do you think that happened as a result of outside events or do you think your organization contributed in any way to that explosion of interest?
A: I think we contributed in a way. We brought the issue up, starting in 1997, and we haven’t really let it die. When other gay rights groups weren’t willing to touch it with a ten-foot pole, we were up there in Albany lobbying for it. We were in the parks getting signatures from gay and straight New Yorkers alike. And bringing the issue up in every possible venue. So it’s hard to say cause and effect. Obviously, the spark that ignited everything recently was San Francisco. But you could go back to Vermont. You could go back to Hawaii. There have been a lot of big events that keep fanning these flames. And I think we played a big part in keeping the flames alive in New York.
April 7, 2004:
Running a revolution isn’t easy, especially one dependent on volunteer labor. Just ask the beleaguered people in charge of Marriage Equality New York. This evening’s business meeting in a garret room of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center proved the point.
David Thompson, Marriage Equality co-chair, facilitated the gathering, which began with an “open mike” forum. Several people reported on last weekend’s demonstration against same-sex marriage in New Paltz by six followers of the notorious homophobe Fred Phelps. A few hundred same-sex marriage supporters counter-demonstrated.
Thompson said there were over 100 police officers dispatched to New Paltz that day. One political strategy the Phelps people use is to spit on their opponents. That often enrages the people spit on, and in the event Phelps supporters are assaulted in retaliation, they sue the town for inadequate police protection.
Thompson discussed the need to set up useful databases to communicate with and coordinate volunteers. He pointed out the difficulty of keeping track of people who have signed petitions, attended meetings, or otherwise expressed interest in same-sex marriage. For example, names and email addresses alone do not indicate the towns or legislative districts in which supporters live for purposes of event organizing and political mobilization.
Thompson said several database improvements were in the works. One would list lesbian and gay couples interested in marrying and would tell their stories and show their pictures. That information could be used to educate legislators and other government officials. Another database would allow people to volunteer for events such as “lobby day” in Albany.
The challenges facing Marriage Equality, a seven-year-old organization, were apparent throughout the 90-minute meeting. One participant, at a planning meeting for the first time, noted that hundreds of people attended the February 27th organizational meeting, but only 20 showed up today. “What happened?” she asked.
Thompson responded by saying that people often get excited about participating in demonstrations and other stimulating activities, but not so much in the organizational strategies needed to plan those actions. He also said that Marriage Equality had not been fully prepared to deal with so many new volunteers. That’s why, he continued, there’s the need, more than ever before, to organize in order to communicate better with volunteers. “Marriage Equality is being pulled in so many ways,” Robert Voorheis, the organization’s treasurer, noted.
Project and committee updates followed. A tax day protest is Marriage Equality’s next public event – on April 15th at the General Post Office, 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, between 5:00 p.m. and midnight. In past years, about ten to twelve people showed up to demonstrate against the unfair taxation of lesbian and gay couples who are unable to marry, compared with the more favorable tax treatment given married couples. Half of the 20 people in the room indicated they planned to protest this year.
Marriage Equality plans “A Wedding March: Crossing the Bridge for Marriage Equality” on May 23rd that will cross the Brooklyn Bridge and go on to Battery Park.
Several people asked whether the organization were supporting the April 25th March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, sponsored by Planned Parenthood and other groups. Thompson said that Marriage Equality did not formally participate in events that weren’t exclusively targeted on marriage rights, because some of the group’s supporters weren’t necessarily in favor of, say, abortion rights. In short, a political imperative impels the organization to be single-issue focused.
Next came the political committee report. Lobby day in Albany was the
highlight. Supporters travel to the state capitol en masse to meet
representatives in their legislative offices and to promote right-to-marry bills
in the judiciary committees of the New York Assembly and Senate. Thompson
observed that the event required substantial coordination, working out logistics
to transport so many people at once to Albany and prepare them for the process
of effective lobbying. Yet several people emphasized the importance of
contacting elected officials who usually are eager to hear constituent concerns.
One former staffer was quoted as saying that every telephone call and letter is
Thompson explained that the prospect for passing a right-to-marry law is remote in light of New York State's painfully slow process of legislating. He recounted how Albany took 30 years just to pass a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nonetheless, part of Marriage Equality’s strategy is to increase the number of co-sponsors of the right-to-marry bill and otherwise work up political support. Such activities also might resound in the courts if state judges see political support building in Albany for marriage equality.
Extensive concern about the challenges of organizing volunteer action permeated the meeting. One woman suggested an electronic bulletin board to keep people posted about activities. Another woman, who said she works as an executive assistant, volunteered to keep minutes and distribute information across sundry “working groups” of volunteers. A third woman said she would create flyers about Marriage Equality events and distribute them widely. Someone else offered to organize orientation sessions for new volunteers that would be held before business meetings.
Of course, a recurring question is whether any or all of this transpires. Several people pointed out the need for accountability among people who volunteer to accomplish tasks. But volunteers can’t have their pay docked or otherwise be sanctioned in ways that traditional businesses use to superintend their workers.
Moreover, tensions were apparent at the meeting between a long-dedicated and experienced core of Marriage Equality volunteers and a much larger contingent of fresh blood looking for fast action.
No, orchestrating a rebellion clearly is not simple.
April 1, 2004:
Guest Commentary by Tony Smith:
Those who desire to save the institution of marriage through a constitutional amendment perhaps should take this opportunity to make a slight change to the proposed amendment that might actually have an effect on the institution of marriage. Specifically, the very modest addition of a prohibition of more than one marriage among straight people could strengthen marriage. That is, "one man, one woman, one marriage" would eliminate serial marriage. Any subsequent union could be a civil union. This might alleviate a bit the separate but equal problem of relegating gay people to civil unions alone. This would also show the amendment’s sponsors to be truly concerned about the institution of marriage. If amendment advocates are unwilling to embrace this modest step actually to bolster the institution of marriage, then we may draw the conclusion they are only interested in pandering to a specific group of voters – homophobes. Charitably, perhaps gay-marriage opponents have deeply held and sincere religious beliefs that underpin and, to them, justify their position. If amendment advocates are sincere rather than simply pandering, perhaps the irony of the appeal to religious justifications for governmental policy at a time when the country is at war with theocratic forces throughout the middle east will not be lost on the balance of the population.
Read the March 2004 "Notes from the Front Lines"
Read the February 2004 "Notes from the Front Lines"
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