In celebration of Valentine’s Day, The National Memo brings you an excerpt from We Do! American Leaders Who Believe in Marriage Equality, edited by Jennifer Baumgardner and former governor of Vermont, Madeleine M. Kunin. From Harvey Milk to President Bill Clinton, Baumgardner and Kunin highlight political leaders — the historic speeches they have made and actions they have taken in the name of equality and of course, love. Baumgardner’s introduction, excerpted below, is her experience with marriage and love as not only the executive director and publisher at The Feminist Press at CUNY, but a wife and mother as well.
You can purchase the book here.
Three years into the institution, the contours of “marriage”—what it feels like for me to be connected legally to Michael—is both a site of struggle and a place of safety. When I’m anxious about a deadline, with kids who are both demanding I play UNO and deliver snacks, and Michael chooses that moment to ask me to scratch his back, my feminist beliefs (soul-saving though they are) don’t help me out very much. In fact, they lead me to rolling my eyes and mouthing, I’m going to kill you, when his back is turned. But when I think about our marriage vows and consider that I made a commitment to care for Michael and to receive care from him, I actually feel some inspiration to sit down and scratch for a minute. Being led by my vows creates a path to bring more love and consideration into our household—and into the world.
I’ve written in the past about my childhood being steeped in feminism, simply because “the movement” was changing the world without my doing anything. My childhood took place in a radically changed atmosphere from that of my mother, full of freedoms that I took for granted because they were, in fact, my birthright.
As a forty-three-year-old woman, I live within a different (though related) active movement now. Nearly every day, hundreds of times each year, I march up and down Christopher Street, traversing Fifth Avenue (where I live) and Hudson Street (where my eight-year-old son attends school). Along the way, I intersect Gay Street and then peek longingly into Bien Cuit as I rush by. I pause for a second at the Stonewall Inn, just before Seventh Avenue, the site of the riots in 1969 that marked the debut of the gay protest movement. Of late, this historic gay bar displays a giant photo of President Obama in the window, along with a quote from his second inaugural address:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall . . .
I pass kids making out in front of the triangle-shaped Christopher Park that features life-size white-lacquered sculptures of two couples—the lesbians seated on a park bench; the gay male couple standing nearby, as if chatting amiably. Two blocks north is the old St. Vincent Hospital, ground zero during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
In other words, my every day begins simply and organically, surrounded by gay rights history and signs of its profound recent successes. After drop-off, I often linger in front of a poster for a weekly prayer vigil for marriage equality at St. John’s Lutheran Church. The following words are emblazoned on it: Our work is not done until all enjoy the freedom we now have. As a child in the 1970s and 1980s, I attended First Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota. If prayers were offered for gay people, it was to help them live a straight life. Today, at least some Lutherans feel an urgent moral imperative to pray to extend marriage to gay couples.
We Do! tells a bit of the story of that sea change, largely from the perspective of political figures. Through these speeches, we glimpse the world politicians encountered in 1978 when AIDS was not yet part of our consciousness, nor was the idea of a diverse and out gay community of suburban dads alongside sex radicals (and all identities in between). We see how a few people speaking up, representing gay people in order to interrupt the stereotypes and hatred, begat an even more powerful movement. We see the slow evolution of power for gay people in the political sphere, as politicians sought their money and votes and eventually their counsel. Like many others, I rejoiced when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and was horrified when he signed on to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. For many years, only a few leaders dared to state that gay relationships deserved the same rights as straight relationships. President Obama (another for whom progressives rejoiced) only recently came around on this after being nudged by his louder vice president. We Do! illustrates how, in the course of a single decade, activism around the institution of marriage—using the vocabulary of love and family—has transformed gay rights from wedge issue to civil rights success story.
Why has marriage become the signature issue of gay rights? Perhaps because, as lawyer/activist Evan Wolfson wrote in 1983, marriage is “an occasion to express their sense of self and their commitment to another human; a chance to establish and plan a life together, partaking of the security, benefits, and reinforcement society provides; and an opportunity to deepen themselves and touch immortality through sexuality, transcendence, and love.”
Marriage, after all, is a way to protect a relationship enough so that you can bring all of the parts of yourself into the room. Ideally, you will be met and cared for by a person who is safe enough to do the same. This state of being gathers privileges from the government to support it: tax breaks, financial benefits starting with “two can live as cheaply as one,” and, most profoundly, respect and legitimacy for the endeavor of caring for one another.
The institution of marriage is fraught. It has its archaic history as a way for a man to establish paternity of his children and manage property and inheritance. It contributes to the tyranny of coupledom. A marriage’s dissolution still hurts women more than men. It’s ironic that gay rights are gaining acceptance at the very same time women are losing some hard-fought victories, notably attacks on abortion and birth control. And yet . . .
The movement for marriage equality has helped this institution continue to evolve from a sexist, dynastic arrangement to a celebration of commitment between two equals. It takes seriously the radical words of the Declaration of Independence. Marriage equality demonstrates that our country is a living, always-growing entity of citizens still learning how to live up to the promise of “all [people] are created equal.”
As Evan Wolfson has written, proponents of gay rights have death on our side: the demise of previous generations who mistook bigotry for piety and the passing of a time when you couldn’t talk about gay love and relationships in polite company or with children. Walking along Christopher Street to school recently, past leather bars and St. John’s Church, Skuli, my eight-year-old, asked me whether boys could marry boys. I said that we lived in New York State so, yes, they can. He asked me whether girls could marry girls and I said, “Yes, we can.”
And if he asked me if I believe institutions can change for the better in a single generation, I’d look at the story of marriage and say, “I do.”
New York City