Marriage Equality New York is a statewide, grass-roots organization committed to ending discrimination in civil marriage. It was founded in New York City in February of 1988, and is the founding chapter of Marriage Equality USA. To learn about MENY first-hand, go to: marriageequalityny.org, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dave Thompson is Co-Chair of the New York chapter of Marriage Equality. Irregular Times spoke with him in June 2004.
Marriage Equality started in February of 1998. Have you been Co-Chair since then?
I became Co-Chair late last year. I've been involved with the organization since 2001. The oral history of what happened before me has at least been passed down to me in some form.
If you could, tell me about how it has changed since its beginnings in February of 1998, up to what's happening with the organization now.
Really, the most important thing that has changed is that the community has changed, and the political atmosphere has also changed. When we were doing this in 1998, it grew out of efforts to prevent the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 from being passed.
A group of New Yorkers, who would later found Marriage Equality, met with Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was our Senator in 1996, and persuaded him to vote against the DOMA. If you know how few people voted against the DOMA, in 1996, that was a fairly big deal. They kept up their activism around this issue, and then incorporated the group in 1998.
What was different at that time was how very few people in the gay community took an interest in the issue or thought is was possible to accomplish anything related to marriage. A lot of people were really shocked by the backlash that came right after the Hawaii court case where we won marriage in Hawaii. There was an immediate effort to amend the Hawaii constitution to nullify that verdict, and that effort was successful. On the Federal level, the Defense of Marriage Act came in. People were scared away from the issue of marriage, thinking, "Gosh, everything we do makes it worse."
Now in retrospect, we see that the people who continued to be active on the issue helped. In states like Utah, where there wasn't a big pro-marriage effort, nevertheless had the Defense of Marriage Act passed. So, it wasn't what we were doing that caused this, it was the ideological right-wing that were determined to pursue this. Whether there was an enemy or not, they were going to be on the battlefield.
That's something else I was curious about: the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Have you or any of the other activists noticed a difference in tone (between the presidential administration in 1996 and the current administration)? From what you're telling me, it sounds like it was an uphill battle then, and it's an uphill battle now.
Well, again one of the big things that's changed between then and now is public acceptance of the idea of marriage, or even civil unions. Just the idea that gays and lesbians form permanent relationships and families. Public acceptance of that is much higher (now) than it was in 1996. So, as a result, the tactics of the right-wing have changed quite a bit. They're now pushing an amendment (to the United States Constitution) specifically because they see the writing on the wall.
In a few years, we will have a voting majority in favor of our marriage rights. So they're trying to lock it into the Constitution now, so when America is ready to give us our rights in the normal process of casting ballots, they won't be able to, because the Constitution will already have been fixed such that (marriage rights) are off the table permanently. That's one thing: the tactics have changed on the side of our opponents quite a bit.
On the side of politicians who are generally gay-friendly, not much has changed. Bill Clinton was known as a gay-friendly president, but he's the one who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Now, you have someone like John Kerry, who is a gay-friendly Senator and candidate, who is nevertheless supporting an amendment, not nationally, but in Massachusetts, to reverse the court decision their that granted us marriage rights (in the state of Massachusetts). So, what I think hasn't changed is that our allies still don't have the courage of their convictions to stand up for what's right, and to stand by us when we need them.
What are they afraid of?
They're afraid of the right-wing's ability to mobilize voters. And what I think they fail to understand is that that ability comes from the right wing's unashamed commitment to their ideology. The people in the center, or center-left, whatever you want to call it, seem to have spent the last ten or so years, even more maybe, being afraid to take stands on issues, being afraid of being called a "liberal" - the word that Ronald Reagan turned into an epithet. I think voters are not attracted to people who do not have the courage of their convictions. So it becomes that the left has trouble gaining traction specifically because they're too afraid to fight the battles.
So, perhaps your organization can help the left or moderate left politicians sharpen their teeth or their claws as it were, politically speaking, and perhaps attract more voters that way?
That is one thing we're trying to do. I've been meeting with Democratic clubs quite frequently, and telling them that the American people are looking for leadership, and what they need to be afraid of is being perceived as not providing leadership. They don't have to be afraid of any particular issue at all. They have to be afraid of being seen as weak. That's really why Al Gore lost the election in 2000. Whether you think he lost or didn't lose, the fact that he's not president is because he let it get so close. He didn't show clear leadership, (that) he was ready to be president. What I'm trying to convey to these clubs is they need to energize themselves. They need to get the courage of their convictions, and they need to bring their ideas to the people.
Frankly, I think center left ideas are better than the ideas of the extreme right-wing. We're going to see - when the American people have the opportunity to compare these ideas on an equal footing - to see candidates who believe what they are saying and say what they believe on the right and in the center, (most Americans are) going to choose the center. That's the message I'm trying to convey to them.
Specifically, with respect to marriage, a lot of politicians are afraid of this issue. They think it's the third rail of politics, but it's really not. There was a poll done this winter by CBS News that asked respondents about twenty-five issues... And of those twenty-five issues, marriage came in dead last (in importance.) Now, if they had asked about thirty-five issues, maybe it would have come in at thirty-five, maybe at twenty-five, we don't know. But the point is is that most people are not going to vote on this issue. The only people who will vote on this issue are people on the extreme, extreme right and gay people. The center politicians are not going to get the votes from the extreme right anyway, so they're not losing anything there. They have the opportunity to lose the votes of gays and lesbians. I voted for Nader (for president in 2000) because I was too disgusted by the lack of vision that the Democrats were putting forward in that election. I was hoping that they would understand that through the fact that people were defecting to the Greens, that (Democratic leadership) does need to stand up and provide the true alternative viewpoint as opposed to the half-baked collection of policies that don't really add up to a leadership vision of how to run the country.
Let's talk more about marriage, and here's where I'm coming from: I'm heterosexual. I am married, and before that, I lived with someone. So I may have a different take on what marriage means to me (compared to someone in the gay and lesbian community.) Maybe I'm wrong, but it's a little different for me (as opposed to a gay or lesbian) because (marriage) is accepted because I'm heterosexual. I wouldn't say it's encouraged, but sometimes people did comment, "Oh, you're thirty-something years old, isn't it time to settle down?" And I will say that between living together and being married, there was a difference (for me) - a psychological and emotional difference. Why does marriage matter to people so much? Why is this such a hot topic now?
I think there are two reasons. One of them is one that you've just touched on, and it's personal and it depends on each person has a different idea of what their ideal of marriage is. For some people, it's an emotional thing. For some people, it's a religious thing. And there are, right now, religious denominations that perform same-sex marriages, and some people choose to do that specifically because they want to feel their relationship is consecrated.
Now, what Marriage Equality New York is fighting for is Civil Marriage, which is different from the many types of religious marriages. That's one thing that also doesn't come out in this debate: marriage is not one thing, it's many things.
Civil Marriage is relatively uniform in the law across the country. Religious marriage runs the gamut, from people in Utah who are old-style Mormons, waiting for the day when they can have multiple wives again, to people in the Catholic church who don't have access to divorce, to Protestant denominations who can divorce, etc., etc. There are many different kinds of religious marriage. And personally, there are some people who feel a deep commitment to the idea of marriage as an intertwining of souls and lives.
In terms of law, which is what we're trying to change, marriage matters because marriage is used as a legal instrument by state, local, federal governments in a myriad of ways. You may have heard this statistic before, but there are 1,183 federal laws that treat people differently, depending on whether or not they are married. And these include things like social security. If you are an elderly person, social security is pretty important. It can mean the difference between eating and not eating... There are things like inheritance tax. If I want to combine my finances with my partner's--who is actually my husband now, we got married in New Paltz (New York) last week -
Thank you. If I want to combine finances with him, any money that I give him is subject to a gift tax, the government takes some of it. If our marriage is recognized, it is understood as a matter of course that we can share the assets that we have together, and the government doesn't attempt to tax them. So these are things that can really affect day to day life.
Another example from my own life is that my husband is Philippino, and he's not a citizen here. And the fact that I've married him, and that (our marriage) is not recognized my the government, means I can't get him a green card. And (not having a green card) means that every six months he has to go back to the Philippines for about six months and stay there and come back because (when he's here) he's on a tourist visa. And it means that when he comes into the country, I never know whether he's going to be getting off the plane or not because the immigration people can tell him at any time "You know, you've been here too often - go home." And when he's here, he can't legally work. I have to support him. So you can begin to see how the lack of recognition of marriage can completely change your life.
Just to use yourself for an example, because you've opened yourself up for it, and just so I can understand terms again because language is so slippery, the marriage you and your husband had last week was... a commitment ceremony? How would you describe it?
What's happening in New Paltz is that the...mayor, and now the deputy mayor, and one of the members of the board of trustees are all in power to perform marriages. Now, typically, you go and get a license from the Department of Health and then you take that to the officiant, and the officiant performs the ceremony, and he says "By the power vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife--or husband and husband in this case." In New Paltz, they're performing the marriages without the license because we can't get the license form the state right now.
Because it's not legally recognized.
Right. So, they're giving people affidavits saying "I, the officiant, married (the couple) as a marriage officer, and this is a legal marriage." But it's not recognized by the state. A the moment, even though I am married, I don't have any other rights than the ones I had two weeks ago.
How is civil marriage different from civil unions? It seems to me that, on the MENY website, the mission statement of Marriage Equality New York is to promote civil marriage. What's the difference between the two?
I will revisit the civil versus religious marriage one more time because that's so important. So many of the arguments used against equality in marriage are basically religious arguments, and because people don't understand the difference is a problem when it comes to convincing people that it's really okay for the government to recognize our marriages.
One of the problems is here in most part if not all parts of the United States, if you go have a wedding in a church (for example) you're really getting two ceremonies in one. You have whatever ceremony that your denomination does to marry people within the church, and you also have the point where the pastor or clergy, who has a license from the state to perform civil marriages, in the middle of the religious ceremony says "By the power vested in me by the state of - I now pronounce you - married." So, that's two ceremonies at the same time. That confuses people because they really only see one ceremony. They don't understand that two marriages are happening.
If you go without a license to any religious institution and say "marry me," and they do, you have no rights under civil law as a married person. If you go get a license and then go to a member of clergy or a judge or to a mayor, you do have rights. So it's completely separate. Religious marriage provides no civil benefits, unless its accompanied by a parallel civil ceremony.
Now, getting to civil union versus civil marriage: civil union is one of those slippery terms. Usually it's presented as being completely equal to marriage. People may come to you up and say "If civil union is the same thing as civil marriage, why don't you just go for civil union?" But the thing is there is no standard for what civil union means. There is an existing body of marriage law. We know what it means. Civil union is anything that law makers say it is. It could be the same (as marriage) except for what it's called, or it might not.
The only place that we have civil union, which is in Vermont, it was specifically called "civil union" rather than "civil marriage" so that it wouldn't be portable to other states. They didn't want to bring Vermont law into conflict with the Defense of Marriage Act. So, they called it "civil unions" so that other states would not be asked to recognize these unions. The only example that we have of civil union in the country is absolutely not equal because it's only valid in Vermont. Whereas if (heterosexuals) get married in Vermont or anywhere else, and then go to another state, they're still married. So, that's that.
The other point that needs to be made is if we figure out a way to make civil unions exactly equal (to marriage) in terms of the law, then what's the point of calling it "civil union"? If it's the same, why give it a different name? The only reason to give it a different name is to make clear that gays and lesbians are not good enough for marriage. (As if to say) "We're going to call it "civil union" because we don't want to want to share marriage with you because we just don't approve of what you are and the kind of families have." I think it's very dangerous to allow the government to discriminate in law and to label groups of people as being inferior.
If you think about what happened in 1967 when the supreme court ruled that it was unconstitutional to bar interracial marriage. Up until that time there were eight states where blacks and whites couldn't marry one another...Now, what would have happened if the supreme court had said "Well, yes, you can have legally recognized unions, but we're not going to call them marriage. If a black person marries a white person we're going to call it 'civil union.'?" That would have been, I think, completely inappropriate for the government to have done. It would have reflected the opinion at the time. In 1967, 78% of Americans thought it was wrong for someone to marry someone of another race. So, the supreme court in those days would have been reflecting the general opinion of the electorate. But, it still would have been wrong.
I remember reading on the Marriage Equality website that the opinion came down to - I don't remember which Justice specifically was cited - but it said that "races don't marry each other, people marry each other," and therefore, this is why... these marriages have to be upheld, constitutionally speaking.
Let me ask you something else... Because (homosexual marriage) is such an emotional issue, when MENY is educating the public... taking the constitutionality and civil liberty angle (of this issue) is a very logical and rational way of saying "It's really okay for the government to support this marriage, this relationship," and yet there are still people out there who disregard all of these, in my opinion, rational arguments. How does Marriage Equality New York address the issue of equality to opponents on a non-rational, or a more emotional level? How do you address these - for lack of a better word - fears that your opponents have? ... How do you address that when, obviously, not all rational arguments are going to sway people?
There are a couple of ways, and it's a very important question because, basically, all of the arguments against allowing us to marry are emotional. There is no logical reason to have this discussion at all. We should have done it already. I won't go into our opponents' arguments, but all of them are either religious, (saying that marriage) is a blessed sacrament, when we're talking about civil law. As we know, there is nothing blessed about tax law or things of that nature that are a part of marriage.
...Or it's about tradition: marriage has always been this way, which is also not true because in biblical times, there was polygamy, people got stoned for adultery, and things of that nature. The reason these arguments all come from, what you're saying, basically an emotional unreadiness to accept our marriages, our families, sometimes even our existence. And there are really two ways to deal with that. One of them is by simple repetition. It takes people a long time to absorb stuff, and you can have a logical discussion and completely fail to convince them. But, at the same time, you can have changed their emotional reaction a little bit just by having the discussion. Particularly when most of us in Marriage Equality are not what you would consider to be your stereotypical gays and lesbians. Those stereotypes are in large measure false, I think, but people do have them.
When I go into a room and I look normal, and I don't have rings out of my nose, and I'm not wearing a dress, and I don't lisp, and I talk directly to people, meeting them in the eye. I don't get mad at them. I listen, and then I respond. People, I think, realize slowly that we are not what they thought we were, and what we're asking for is not what they thought we were asking for. I don't know if you remember that old Sesame Street book The Monster at the End of This Book? Throughout the book, Grover is telling you, "Don't turn the page-there's monster at the end of this book!"
Oh, yeah, I remember that...(laughter)
And the monster is Grover! This is like Monster at the End of This Book. We just have to get people to understand that there is no monster at the end of the book, and partly, that's by repetition. Partly, it's also by telling our personal stories which helps people to connect because this can be a very abstract issue if I'm talking about tax law, and I'm talking about hospital visitation, and all this stuff. It's abstract and legal. It's the kind of stuff (similar to) the back of each credit card bill, all this fine print and nobody reads that, nobody wants to know about that kind of stuff, whether it has to do with your credit card or my marriage. People's eyes glaze over and they go to sleep.
So, telling personal stories like, (for example), my main goal in getting married is to be on the same continent with my partner, my husband, and I don't think there's anything scary about that. And when people understand what it is we're really trying to do, and hear some of the ways not having a marriage affects us, I think it activates their own moral sense of right and wrong. That it really is wrong turn people's lives upside-down the way this current legal situation does. And that gets at them because it's also true that one thing we're fighting against is the fact that most people don't really think about what their own marriage is, most straight people. They get married and they're not thinking, "Oh, gosh, now I won't have to pay inheritance tax," or, "Gosh, eventually, we will have social security," or, "Gosh, now we can have health insurance." That stuff is so automatic, they don't even think about it, so they don't understand what we're losing by being shut out of it.
I have to admit that (when I got married) all of that never did cross my mind.
Right. And it's nothing against straight people for not realizing it. There's no reason why they would think "Now I've got this ring, and I have 1, 183 rights and privileges I didn't have before, on the federal level alone." That's not part of anyone's reception speech after the wedding.
One thing I did recognize though, after my marriage, was that it was a social ritual... and to me it was "Oh, I am an adult now," and I don't mean to imply that people who aren't married are in some state of arrested development, but it is a ritual that does wave its magic wand. But, in the homosexual community, have you heard any discussion about apprehension about getting married, and what that would change things. You know, there are people in the straight community who just don't want to get married, and they have their reasons. Have you heard anything in the gay community about that?
Yeah, there's a few things. To come closest to what you just discussed, there are people who, now that there is some form of marriage available in places some of the time, may be feeling pressured by a boyfriend or girlfriend to go and do that-or even by family. It's the stuff of newspaper cartoons, of "Oh, when are you ever going to get married?" Now, we're in a position where it can actually happen to us too. There is a possibility, at least, in some of the places some of the time, for us to get married.
There's also, some people having a negative view of marriage as an institution that has, historically, oppressed women. It was, when, in the '70s when it finally became illegal for a husband to have sex with his wife if she didn't want it. Which is astonishing, when you think about it, especially when it's not just "Oh, not tonight, dear, I have a headache," but when you have a husband and wife who are separated, and may have been separated for years. The husband can come over and say "We're doing it now," and that was not considered rape. So there are people who have a historic view of marriage that is not positive. On the contrary, some people in our community are arguing that if you take that - I'll call it a feminist view of marriage - then when we're finally admitted, that will finally change that dynamic permanently in that it's no longer going to be inequality whether it's two men or two women. Then, finally, there are some people who think that by winning marriage rights, the choice for marriage, we're going to be forcing everyone in the gay community to become conservative, leave it to Beaver families, and not everybody wants that. It's all about choice.
It can also be about breaking stereotypes about what straight marriage is like, too.
Yeah. One of the few true things that our opponents say is that marriage will be changed when we're finally admitted. I think even now, it's already changed because a lot of people who never really thought about it before have had to think about what marriage is and what it means. And view that as a change for the better, because it seems silly to have such an omnipresent institution so completely unknown to people who are participating in it.
And I think we've provoked some good discussion, and soul-searching among straight people throughout the country on this issue of what their marriage means. So, no we certainly don't have everybody in our community wanting to get married. And it's not about having everybody in our community want to or get married, it's about choice for he people who do want it, to do it. And, generally speaking, the people who want to get married are the ones that believe in marriage as it is. And we're trying to do it because we believe in it, and the people who don't want to do it are not going to do it because that's not what they want for their lives, just as it is in the straight world.
Oh, yeah. People are people...My last question is about your website... There is a lot of interesting stuff on there including different, interesting court cases, and things about Marriage Equality in New York specifically, and events you've been involved with, and legislation you've been involved with, and all sorts of opportunities to get involved. It's a nice - what I like to call thick - website. To somebody who's logging in, what are some sections that you, personally, recommend? If I only had maybe five or ten minutes around lunchtime, and I wanted to peruse MENY, what's a highlight or two you would like me to take a look at?
There's the "Get The Facts" section which has some categories, different position papers that we have, different aspects of the issue. Depending on what people already know or feel they know about marriage, different things may be of interest to them there.
I wish everybody in America would read the part about the difference between civil and religious marriage, which you'll find in the Get The Facts area.
I wish everyone would read the part about children of gay and lesbian parents because that's something that we've glanced past in this interview. About thirty percent of gay and lesbians have children. I thing people kind of imagine gay couples as a couple in New York with two cats, or something like that. Their not all in New York. They're all over the country, and they come from every kind of culture we have in this country: from ethnic cultures to farm culture to city culture, suburban culture. We are everywhere. And nationwide, about thirty percent of these couples have kids. And these kids are also suffering from the lack of recognition for their parents' marriages.
If you think about what are the fundamental things children are guaranteed by their parents' marriage, they will always have access to both of their parents. They will always have the right of support from both of their parents. We know that, unfortunately, a lot of relationships end with separation. In the straight world, about fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. And when straight people divorce, their children have the right to continued access to both of their parents even thought their parents aren't together anymore. This is something that children of gay and lesbian couples don't have. So, I think that's something that I wish everybody would learn more about.
Finally, (web visitors can read about) the civil union versus civil marriage (issue.) That continually pops up, and there's a lot of implicit criticism about our movement, (such as) "Why aren't you going for civil unions? Why are you making all of this trouble by asking for marriage when some of us would be more comfortable giving you civil union?" Of course, I have two responses to that: (First,) if you're more comfortable giving us civil union, why don't you give us civil union, and then come back and we can talk. Someone like John Kerry, for example, says he supports civil unions. He's still in the senate. He hasn't introduced a civil union bill. Mostly, that's trying to distract and deflect this discussion into a dead end. But, there's also the factual substance of it, which is as far as anyone in America has ever experienced civil unions, it is not equal and it is not sufficient. And I wish people would learn more about that as well.
Well, Dave Thompson, thank you very much for spending this time with me.