PFLAG Storms SLC 

Meeting again on the battleground of marriage

On the weekend of October 22, over 400 people gathered in Salt Lake City for the national conference of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to acquire ammunition and receive support in a fight for what they know deep in their hearts--that gay people deserve absolute equality. Fueled by a passion for justice and boundless parental love, most conference attendees were parents of one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) children. Other attendees were siblings, relatives, friends and LGBT themselves mixed in with a few visionary attendees with no relational ties to LGBT people, just a desire to participate in the gay rights movement.

Given that Utah was to be one of 11 states to vote on a Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denying LGBT people the right to marry in the November 2 election, the conference could hardly avoid examining what gay marriage means--personally, politically, socially and legally. In the minds and hearts of PFLAGers, the importance of preventing state constitutional amendments from defining marriage as strictly between one man and one woman is essential to upholding key American rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Evan Wolfson, founder of the organization Freedom to Marry and an attorney in many critical legal cases involving gay issues, was one of the speakers at the conferences. Wolfson provided an historical account of marriage, asserting that, "Time and time again, civil rights moments have been fought on the battleground of marriage." He underscored how "marriage has always been changing based on many societal factors: who can marry whom, contraception, separation of church and state, gender equality and the right of all people to be both different and equal."

For example, at one time the government, not individuals, made decisions about marriage. Marriage was compulsory before it became an act of love and choice, and women were subordinate to men before they became equal partners. When divorce entered the political arena, it was legalized on a state-by-state basis and some couples traveled to particular states to be divorced and returned home uncertain of their legal status in their home state. Not long ago, people of different races could not legally wed--New York first legalized interracial marriage in 1948 while Alabama did not do so until 2000. Gay marriage will likely follow a similar state-by-state legalization pattern.

Wolfson used history to show both how difficult and how possible it has been to legislate change in the name of equality. He spoke of how Brown v. Board of Education was not met with widespread approval when ruled just 50 years ago and that there was massive resistance to the decision to desegregate schools. Often, legislation has preceded general public support.

In Wolfson's view, gay marriage is yet another meeting on the human rights battlefield of marriage. He urged the PFLAG audience to remember four lessons from history when fighting for marriage equality. First, wins trump losses; as long as there are places like Massachusetts and Canada (where gay marriage is legal and families are helped and not hurt), people will open their hearts and minds and join the movement to overturn discrimination. Second, losing can still be "losing forward." Wolfson said, "We may not be able to sway the majority in the timeframe we have, but still can do something to lose forward. We can deliver a particular district or community and enlist allies to feel emboldened to speak out." Third, tell the truths about GLBT people and their families. This country now divided into thirds--one-third supports gay marriage, another third is adamantly against not just marriage equality but gay people in general and a final third would rather not hear about gay issues but are not haters and believe in fairness. People in this last group are potential allies if they come to see two truths--that this is about real people and real families and that it is wrong and un-American to deny these couples and their kids full equality under the law. Fourth, generational momentum is on the side of equality. "Young people already support marriage equality and are less vulnerable to scare tactics and stereotypes," explained Wolfson.

Though Wolfson joked about having made a career out of losing legal battles, he remains fervently optimistic. Eight states have current bills to provide marriage equality and five have stalled or defeated discriminatory bills (Idaho among them). Twenty-three nations now afford gay marriage or civil unions and seven additional countries are heading that way. In the United States, marriage is the gateway to over 1,000 rights, privileges and responsibilities and a statement so important most people wear a symbol on their hand. "What's at stake in this struggle is what kind of a country this country is going to be, a place where no one religion dictates who gets what," Wolfson concluded.

For more on gay marriage, visit www.hrc.org, www.freedomtomarry.org or www.pflag.org.

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