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Though much will be made of it, the federal Marriage Protection Amendment (MPA) is unlikely to be the most important story of the marriage fight this year. To be sure, that constitutional atrocity must be defeated. But for most of us who are defending gay families, the fight is being fought at the state level. Given the wide range of situations from state to state, the question increasingly is how we can maintain a well-coordinated national movement with a minimum of fragmentation and internecine sniping.
One source of internal friction is irresponsible litigators — couples who are determined to gain their equal rights now, who are governed more by their hearts than their heads, and who press ill-advised court cases while refusing to work constructively with gay legal strategists. Such cases risk setting us back by creating bad precedents, as well as putting wind in the sails of a federal amendment by trying to force the policies of gay-welcoming states on less-welcoming ones.
Being in love, I sympathize with those who are unwilling to wait for a more conducive political climate. Unfortunately, wanting equality now does not make it so, any more than demanding my two-minute egg instantaneously as a toddler made it cook any faster. But while we remind our compatriots that our struggle is a long-term one, we must deal with the reality that some gay people will ignore us and go charging off making messes that the rest of us will have to deal with.
A second source of friction is disagreement over how much slack to cut politicians who are relatively gay friendly but oppose equal marriage rights. The call by some New York gays to stop giving money to Hillary Clinton is an example of this. In races where the alternative choices are even worse, this question becomes somewhat moot, since most of us would agree that, pragmatically, we prefer the least objectionable candidate. Like President Bush dealing with the Saudis or the United Arab Emirates, we have to face the fact that imperfect alliances are necessary in a messy world. This, however, does not require us to be doormats. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
A third source of friction lies in how we define our cause. Some argue that since the federal Defense of Marriage Act bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and since more states offer civil unions, the likelihood of greater interstate portability for civil unions makes that the better way to go. Others argue that, since many states are moving to prohibit any protections for gay couples, and since we can never get what we want if we don’t even ask for it, it makes more sense to go for full civil marriage – at least in the few states where that appears achievable in the next several years.
As we argue over civil unions, domestic partnerships and civil marriage, it is worth remembering that our enemies want us to get nothing. But calls for unity do not resolve our differences. Appeals for unity are often just another way of telling people to keep their dissenting views to themselves. If I am convinced that my strategy will work and yours will backfire, it makes no sense for me to shut up and march off a cliff with you to show my solidarity. These disagreements are inevitable. The gay rights movement cannot expect to be any less contentious than earlier civil rights movements were.
Political reality in most states leaves us little choice but to embrace, at least for the time being, solutions that fall short of equality. But the defense strategies and pragmatic solutions of the present do not preclude longer-term efforts toward full equality. Indeed, the messages we convey in our initiative campaigns, and the legal commitments that gay couples are able to embrace in many states, can help move our society toward greater acceptance of gay families.
What is at issue here is not a mere label. The goal toward which gay people will inevitably push is civil equality, call it what you will. And equality at the state level does not confer equality at the interstate or federal level. As long as the 1,138 federal rights and responsibilities of marriage, including immigration rights, continue to be denied to all gay couples in the country, there will always be someone pushing to end this continuing injury. So whatever strategy is adopted in a given state, it will not be the final word on the subject.
Our statewide battles amount to a series of separate experiments from which all of us can learn. Rather than view our internal disputes over goals and strategies negatively, we can profit by regarding one another as laborers in different parts of the vineyard. Through all of our struggles ahead, the guiding force will not be mere abstractions but real couples seeking to redress particular inequities.
In the end, our nationwide success may depend on our ability to stand in one another’s shoes. Our greatest risk may not be of a political or legal failure, but a failure of imagination. So while the passions that drive our activism are indispensable, on occasion we need to restrain them long enough to listen to one another. It is essential that we keep our networks in good working order. The other side certainly does.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.