I missed “Freedom to Marry Day” this year, but it was nothing personal – my husband and I are so easily preoccupied we forgot to celebrate our own 20th anniversary last year.
As it does each year, the Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley organized the “Freedom to Marry” protest in front of the Lehigh County Courthouse on Feb. 11. That was two days after the fatal explosion rocked Allentown so the media understandably had turned their attention elsewhere.
More than 35 people came out to support the rights of same-sex couples to wed. One lone counter-protester held up a sign that said, “God said ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ ”
That takes me back. When I first started writing in support of gay rights and marriage a decade ago, I could count on getting all manner of angry letters, e-mails and phone calls with variations of that message. But those dwindled over the years – no doubt some readers felt I was incorrigible – and the “you go, girl” missives began to outnumber them.
My experience is indicative of the shifting legal landscape and attitudes that have been picking up momentum like an avalanche. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act -- the 1996 law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages -- against lawsuits that claim it is unconstitutional. Currently, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and Washington, D.C. issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Locally, the City of Allentown granted health benefits to same-sex partners of city workers in January, about 16 years after it was first proposed.
Liz Bradbury is heartened by those advances. She is executive director of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network, an organization with 600 members in Lehigh and Northampton counties which advocates for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. She gives some credit to Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the California case that challenged Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Forcing same-sex marriage opponents to make a legal case in court for why gays and lesbians should be denied such a basic human right revealed how weak their arguments are, said Bradbury, an Allentown resident.
Part of the opponents’ problem is the sky-is-falling predictions haven’t panned out. After Massachusetts began allowing same-sex marriage in May 2004, conservative James Dobson famously predicted gay marriages would “destroy marriage, it will destroy the Earth.”
“In Massachusetts, the divorce rate has actually gone down,” Bradbury told me. The Bay State continues to have the lowest divorce rate in the country.
All of this isn’t abstract to Bradbury. She and her partner, Patricia Sullivan, have been together for 23 years and were wed in Connecticut in 2009. But because the U.S. government doesn’t recognize their union, if one of them dies tomorrow, the other will be treated as a stranger for tax purposes. The survivor would have to pay a 15 percent inheritance tax on their property – which wouldn’t be true for me or my husband.
That’s just one of the more than 1,138 federal rights and 600 state rights that come with the institution of marriage, Bradbury said. Among the most important are immigration rights. An Allentown couple, Kindall Gobel and Phil Healing, had to move back to Healing’s native England after the New Jersey company he worked for laid off half the staff, including Healing, and he lost his work visa. If the U.S. government recognized their marriage, Healing could have stayed.
Together since 1993, they still own a house in Allentown and Healing told me in an e-mail that they would move back if the U.S. changed the law. “Of course, it has cost us a small fortune to relocate to [the] U.K., and would again cost us another small fortune to move back to the U.S, plus the finding of jobs, etc., and restarting life again,” he wrote.
It comes down to fairness, and I’ve never heard that issue explained better than the way comic Lea DeLaria put it years ago: “Don’t talk to me about the sanctity of marriage when a straight guy can get drunk in Vegas and marry a hooker in the Elvis chapel, but two men who have been together for 20 years can’t get married.”
The history of American jurisprudence reflects the gradual, halting, sometimes grudging, extension of civil rights from a narrow minority to widening groups of people: African-Americans, women and people with disabilities. Who would turn back time on rights for those Americans?
The movement to grant gays and lesbians equal rights is a freight train picking up steam. You can get on board or in 20 years explain to your perplexed grandchildren why you once thought gays and lesbians should remain second-class citizens.