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Same Sex Marriages – ‘Spreading Like a Wildfire’

Commentary by Naomi Nakamura and Steff Yorek |
April 2, 2004
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San Francisco, CA - Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, thousands of lesbians and gays, along with their children, friends and families, lined up in front of City Hall in San Francisco to marry. Outside, married couples and well-wishers celebrated, while inside hundreds of volunteers helped with paperwork. By the end of the weekend, nearly two thousand same sex couples had been married.

Then on March 3, Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, also began to marry same-sex couples. That day they issued 422 marriage licenses, more than six times as many as any previous day. Across the country, there is a growing cry to grant lesbians and gays the same marital rights as opposite sex couples. Here in California, the city council of San Jose (which cannot issue marriage licenses) voted 8 to 1 to recognize same-sex marriages for city workers.

On Feb. 4, the Massachusetts Supreme Court added fuel to the movement by ruling that civil unions were not enough, and that the only way to satisfy equal rights for lesbians and gays under that state’s constitution was marriage. Drawing on the famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ruled southern segregation was unconstitutional, a majority of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said that “separate is seldom, if ever, equal.”

Without the right to marriage, lesbians and gays are second-class citizens when it comes to issues such as parenting, homeownership, getting health insurance coverage and immigration. Winning the basic democratic right of marriage would not only benefit lesbians and gays and their families, but would also be a major setback for the right-wing Christians who want to impose their religious views on things like ending abortion rights and undermining public schools.

Just as southern segregationists tried to fight back following the Brown vs. Board decision by putting the Confederate flag into the Georgia and Mississippi state flags, violently attacking civil rights demonstrators and swearing that “segregation was forever,” so too is the Christian right and the Bush administration trying to fan a backlash against same-sex marriages. Bush called for amending the U.S. constitution to forbid lesbians and gays from getting married and politicians in Massachusetts are meeting to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages, while allowing civil unions. Bush and the Massachusetts legislature want to go back to the 1800’s, when state and federal constitutions were used to codify second class citizenship into law.

Already, some elected officials are discouraging large scale, same sex marriages and trying to channel the movement into the courts and upcoming elections. This strategy won’t work. This is the same strategy that created the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the U.S. military. More gays and lesbians have been kicked out of the military under this compromise, which was supposed to be a ‘step forward,’ than were removed when there was an outright ban.

But what is so exciting is that this struggle for full equality has moved out of the courtroom and become a mass movement. After Brown vs. Board of Education, racists were generally still able to block any desegregation of the schools for years. The real turning point was the Feb. 1, 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, where four black college students sat down in the white section. Following their arrests, African Americans began to break down segregation through mass, direct action at restaurants, theaters, swimming pools and finally, at the ballot box. Despite thousands of arrests and beatings, and the torture and murder of some civil rights activists, this movement eventually won passage of Civil Rights laws and inspired Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women and queers to fight for their rights. It is only by again picking up this legacy that the struggle for democratic and civil rights for gays and lesbians will move forward.

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