Marriage Equality, those two words have become the center of the final battle for gay rights. How far we have come and how far we have yet to travel. I remember when I was much younger and first coming to understand my sexual attraction and orientation the thought of marriage was not on my mind. In fact, my first long term relationship didn’t consider getting married as most of who we were in fact was considered illegal. The majority of our life was spent trying to get housing which was safe, not to be fired from our jobs and not get the crap kicked out of us for daring to live together. The early “gay affirming” church called the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches” had a liturgy that was called a “Holy Union.” This pretty much copied the traditional church wedding ceremonies’ and changed the pronouns to fit the same gender couple. For a hot second that was enough, that is to have a church recognize your relationship and hold it as blessed in the eyes of God. Of course the longer we were together with our partners the more we found out that while God may love us and embrace us, no one else was and especially the law. We had no visitation rights for our partners when hospitalized, because we weren’t married. We had no rights to our partner’s body when they died, because we were not married. In the late 70’s and mid 80’s people were dying at an alarming rate. We had no rights to pass on property without it being contested by family members, because we weren’t married. If our partner had something catastrophic happen to them, we had no say in their treatment or care, because we were not married. We could not have children, because we were not married. We could not adopt children, because we were not married. We could not be considered for credit together, because we were not married. The longer a couple was together and the everyday obligations of living life became more and more complicated because we were not married. As a couple we suffered at the hands of the IRS and tax breaks and credits because we were not married. The list of discriminatory practices used against gay couples simply because they were not married amounts to thousands of laws both on a federal and state level. Of course if a couple had an endless stream of cash flow, they could find a good lawyer to write up all kinds of legal documents for protection of the relationship that may or may not hold up in court, because wait here it comes; we were not married. Thus began the fight for equality. Now, I could write page upon page of horror stories of what has happened to couples in the 31 years my partner and I have been married in the eyes of our church. In this journey of time one has heard all the arguments for and against allowing gay people to be treated equal in the church and in the eyes of the law. We have heard all the negotiations for giving couples some rights by calling our relationships “civil unions,” “holy unions,” “domestic partnerships.” We have seen the definition of marriage defined, re-defined and re-defined again. Thanks to straight people the definition of marriage does not hold the same personal life time commitment of fidelity, integrity and love that I am sure we all want it to. With divorce for first time marriages approaching 50% and 60% of second marriages I failed to see how the gay community gets pulled into the argument of re-defining marriage. This does not even take into consideration of the new reality TV shows for putting a man and women together or the lunacy of the Las Vegas marriage. The straight community hasn’t needed us to destroy marriage; they have done very well on their own. We have more than our fair share of folks in our own community who do not believe marriage is the ultimate goal for our community simple because straight people have been less than good role models of marriage at the minimum and total hypocrites at the worst. So what is really at the bottom of this snake pit of fiery rhetoric and endless court battles? Equality! However, it is not equality the way it is being discussed and debated. The issue is not about what the church will have to do or not do, accept or not accept. It is not even about laws that allow for people to live their lives in relative safety and the pursuit of happiness. What it is about is whether or not our straight counterparts see gay people as equal to them as human beings.
When I saw the movie “Lincoln” there is a piece of dialogue which clarified what actually is going on with “Marriage Equality.” At some point in the movie Lincoln is in a conversation with a political ally about getting the 13th amendment passed. The ally is trying to explain to the president the real challenge of the 13th amendment. The challenge it turns out is not putting an end to slavery but rather the country with the passage of the 13th amendment will have to give the “negro” the vote. In other words once one could not hold people in slavery, one must recognize they are full human beings with all the rights and privileges that go with that.
Now I know that didn’t come until much later (100 years to be more exact) but this little piece of prophecy set the stage for the civil rights movement and the definition of “human rights.” This struggle for “Marriage Equality” is the final argument of whether or not gay people are fully human and on equal footing with the rest of this creation we call human. It is the 3/5 of a human being all over again debate all over again.
Oh, I know the religious and political right have not used this exact language, it has been carefully avoided under the cover of morality and ethics of faith dogma or what is natural or not natural. However, that is exactly what is being said to us. As long as we are denied marriage equality the so called right can rest in the blessed assurance we are not fully human and therefore do not have to be treated equally under the law. The conservatives within the Black community say this is not a civil rights issue and our community has taken heat for arguing for what we called our civil rights. Of course for all the wrong reasons they are correct, this argument, this fight, this pitched battle has never been about civil rights, it is in fact about being seen as fully human, yes that is correct human rights! My brothers and sisters in my community have gotten sucked into the wrong conversation. We have been fighting for the right to not get fired, the right to live where we want in relative safety, the right to medical care etc. Yet, even if we get all of that we will still be considered 3/5 of a human being because our love and expression of that is not equal. We can now serve in the military, but we are not equal. We can set up partnerships, but we are not equal. We can serve in churches, but we are not equal. We can have our jobs as long as we don’t claim to be equal.
The political and religious right is saying they are 6 feet tall and we are only 3.6 feet tall, so we can never fully have what they have.
They will give us civil unions, but that is not fully equal. They will give us domestic partnerships, but that is not fully equal. We can spend thousands of dollars to get legal paper work done, but it will not hold up because we are not fully equal. We can fight and win the right of job protection, but we are not equal. We can have hate crime laws passed, but we are not equal. As long as they can say our relationships are not a marriage, they can continue to say we are not equal. The religious and political right will find comfort in the phrase from the book Animal Farm: “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” I think our adversaries know the moment they let us say “I do,” they have lost the battle. So they will fight us tooth and nail by giving us a crumb here and there, but not anything beyond 3/5 of a human being. Understand this; DOMA says we are 3/5 of a human being. State constitutions that bar marriage equality say we are 3/5 of human being. When insurance companies can deny your spouse coverage they are saying you are 3/5 of a human being. When families can step in the middle of a medical crisis or death and take over it is because by law we are 3/5 of a human being. Let us no longer be fooled by the crumbs of these so called rights they will eventually give us, but never the full banquet. We are fully human, and “Marriage Equality” puts us on equal footing with our adversaries. My partner (husband) and I (also husband) have been “married” for 31 years and in that time we have paid our taxes, voted, served our country, one in the military, one as a pastor, contributed to our countries economy, played and officiated in the sports world, owned a home, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, given drink to the thirsty, and visited the sick and imprisoned. In this country that means we have long since passed the expectations of the vast majority of marriages. I think it is more than past the time of being seen as 3/5 of a human being and being recognized for what we are; fully human in the eyes of God, the church and the law!
Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever and Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, where Whosoever Founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew was ordained, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994.