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Gays and lesbians stand up to bigots over right to marry
"Getting off the back of the bus"

By Elizabeth Schulte | February 20, 2004 | Page 12

HUNDREDS OF people were camped out in the pouring rain outside San Francisco's city hall February 16, waiting their turn to join 1,700 gay and lesbian couples who were married in defiance of California state law. The scene in San Francisco was part of an outpouring of action around the country--as gays and lesbians stood up to George W. Bush and the bigots who want to deny their rights.

"Everybody has a right to love each other," Cynthia Rickert told the San Francisco Chronicle after she was married last week. "It's time for us to get off the back of the bus." Across the U.S., the protests had the flavor of the lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s civil rights movement--with gays and lesbians protesting bans on same-sex marriage in some cities, and going into city offices to demand licenses in others.

The tide reached a high point in San Francisco after Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that same-sex marriage licenses would be issued starting last Thursday. Hundreds of people--then thousands--turned out to hold him to his word. Couples came from all over the country--despite the potential risk to any "domestic partnership" rights they might have.

Longtime gay rights activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin--who have been a couple for 51 years--were the first to marry. A recently married Mary Anne Callahan told Socialist Worker: "We're totally excited. We were number 107. We have a nine-and-half-year-old daughter. Now, after all this time, my partner finally has parental rights fully transferred." Callahan also put her finger on the political importance of the gay marriages in San Francisco: "Weasely, wishy-washy candidates will have to take a stand on this issue now that this happened."

Conservative groups are hell-bent on blocking the marriages, under a 2000 California ballot initiative that says the state will only recognize marriages between a man and woman. As Socialist Worker went to press, an injunction was being filed with the Superior Court of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, across the country in Boston, people packed the State House last week to defend their hard-won rights against a right-wing backlash. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has issued two rulings since November ordering the state government to allow full marriage rights and benefits for gay and lesbian couples, starting in May.

At a two-day constitutional convention February 11-12, state legislators debated three amendments that would ban same-sex marriage. The debate broke down into three groups: a group of 60 to 70 conservatives, many of them Roman Catholic and Democrats, who want to ban gay marriage altogether; about 90 lawmakers who want to define marriage as a heterosexual union, but also grant partnership rights and benefits for same-sex couples; and a group of 40 supporters of gay marriage, who sought to defeat any constitutional amendment opposing it.

The conservatives showed their bigotry during the heated debate. "Mother Nature left her blueprint behind, the DNA of a man and a woman," claimed Democratic Rep. Marie Parente.

Thousands of activists turned out to defend gay marriage on the day of the vote, flooding into the State House, and the area around it. At first, gay marriage supporters were nearly outnumbered by opponents. But as the day wore on, gay rights demonstrators took over both sides of the street, chanting "Gay, straight, Black, white: same struggle, same fight" and "Separate is not equal."

The session ended in a deadlock. Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene in March. At that point, Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Thomas Finneran--both Democrats--plan to propose a joint "compromise" amendment that will ban gay marriage and "use vague wording" on civil unions. But we can't settle for the Democrats' compromises on gay marriages.

The next few weeks will be a crucial time for activists to build a grassroots campaign--rooted in unions, on campuses and in neighborhoods--to defend the right to marry. The events of the last week show that building this kind of struggle is not only possible, but also necessary.

In some 25 cities across the country, people took to the streets to demand the right to marry and to oppose Bush's proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would prevent states from recognizing same-sex marital relationships. The "Freedom to Marry Week" events were called by the Equality Campaign, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) and

In Chicago, about 200 people picketed in front of Cardinal Francis George's Gold Coast home. About 150 people gathered at a Phoenix, Ariz., church as gay and lesbian couples took part in marriage ceremonies. "No second-class citizens!" read one of the signs at a 300-strong rally at Connecticut's state capitol in Hartford, where the legislature recently proposed legislation for a statewide ban on gay marriage.

The weekend before, antigay bigots demonstrated at the capitol in favor of the proposal--but this week, gay rights protesters took the streets. Marcy Hayes and Lynda Johnson, who have a civil union, told the New Haven Register about the many benefits that they are denied. "Like the right to visit each other in the hospital," Hayes said. "There are so many rights that married couples have that we don't."

On February 13, gay-marriage supporters gathered in the Ohio capital of Columbus to protest the state's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This month, Ohio became the 38th state to pass a law banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. Outside the courthouse, protesters gathered with signs reading, "Civil marriage is a civil right" and "DOMA=DOBA: Defense of Bigotry Act!"

Inside the courthouse, lesbian and gay couples demanded marriage licenses. "They said we were interfering with the workings of the court, that we can't apply, that they were not going to accept our application," Leo Radel and Joe Gentilini told Socialist Worker. "But we filled it out and put it on the counter anyhow."

In Washington, D.C., more than 200 people turned out for a rally for gay marriage at the Metropolitan Community Church. In what was by far the biggest and most multiracial meeting around gay politics in D.C. in years, groups of young gays and lesbians joined dozens of gay couples and seasoned activists in packing the pews to hear about the fight for gay marriage.

Dr. Jonathan White, a professor and member of the D.C. Radical Faeries, captured the mood. "We are at a moment of incredible opportunity and danger," White said. "We need to seize that moment and win!" Unfortunately, most of the other speakers focused instead on why we needed an incremental approach to winning gay marriage--and outlined ways not to confront the bigots. For instance, Maryland State Delegate Richard Madaleno spent most of his time justifying why, as the first openly gay member of the state house, he proposed a bill not for gay marriage, but for the more "practical first step" of civil unions.

Speaker after speaker reminded the audience of the need to vote for Democrats in November. But this won't win the fight for gay marriage. The time is now to organize a movement that speaks up for our rights--without concessions or apologies.

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