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What will it take to win marriage equality?

May 4, 2007 | Page 4

THE MARRIAGE equality movement in Washington won a partial victory last week as Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law a bill that creates a domestic partnership registry and provides 12 rights for same-sex partners, as well as for senior couples over the age of 62.

The law falls far short of the more than 300 rights granted to different-sex couples under current state law, but it grants hospital visitation rights, the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, inheritance rights should one partner die without a will, and rights for couples upon the death of one partner, among others.

Some politicians have used the law's passage to highlight their own commitment to equality, but many are questioning how much of a victory this actually is.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Susan Paynter wrote of her gay and lesbian friends: "They were happy, but I was a bit embarrassed...Not because the couples are gay and lesbian. I just felt as if it was suddenly the '60s again, and I was calling Black folks to say, 'Congratulations! Looks like, soon, you'll have to sit only halfway back in the bus!'"

Ordinary citizens have expressed disappointment that, after years of struggle and of living under the undue hardships created by inequality, this meager law was the best that a group of gay lawmakers who campaigned on support for marriage equality were able to pass. "Yes, it's still second-class status," said Julie Wittrock. "I'd actually like to marry my partner after 27 years together."

As the country moves to the left, support for marriage equality is greater and stronger than even many activists realize, and can grow stronger with more visible, more public forms of struggle.

A study by the Pew Research Center published in March 2006 showed significant changes in the levels of support for marriage equality. The number of Americans who favor marriage equality rose from 29 percent in 2004 to 39 percent two years later. Nearly 51 percent of Americans oppose marriage equality--but that's down from 63 percent in 2003. A recent poll by the Columbian and three other Washington newspapers found that some 50 percent said they were opposed, while 43 percent said they supported same-sex marriages.

Oregon recently passed legislation that grants same-sex couples full marriage equality, despite naming the marriage contracts "domestic partnerships." Even in China, one of the most profound Valentine's Day events occurred in Beijing, where gays and lesbians used the holiday this year to make the country's first public appeal for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Democratic legislators who have courted the gay vote with promises of support for marriage equality argue that this is an important first step in a long process. "You don't go from zero to a hundred instantly," said Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat who was the main sponsor of the domestic partnership measure. "You have to work to bring people along."

This position ignores the grassroots organizing and protest that activists have undertaken in recent years and the impact that such activism has had on pushing the marriage equality as far as it has come. With support for marriage equality growing, a Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature, and a Democratic governor, activists are forced to ask which people Senator Murray wants to bring along.

Murray, one of five openly gay lawmakers in the legislature, further explained that the bill "offers the hope that one day, all lesbian and gay families will be treated truly equal under the law." Legislation for full marriage equality, sponsored by many of the same legislators, was introduced at the same time as the domestic partnership legislation, yet has remained unread and ignored in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Last year, Washington's Supreme Court ruled against marriage equality and sent the issue to the legislature for resolution. In the lead-up to that decision, the major marriage equality organizations in the state opted for a "wait and see" approach, including a campaign that focused on lobbying days and personal visits, e-mails and letters to lawmakers. In the absence of mass resistance and protest of the preceding years, the Court delivered exactly what the movement was willing to fight for at that time: delay.

As legislators took up the issue, the major organizations again opted for a passive strategy of private action that included lobbying, letter writing, and e-mails. Leading organizations such as Equal Rights Washington recognize that domestic partnerships are not equal rights. However, in the absence of a leadership to organize and encourage mass protest to demand real equality, second best will be the best we can get.

The marriage equality movement can rebuild with confidence and optimism in the years to come. To build the strongest and most effective movement, activists must organize publicly and democratically at the grassroots level. While no one can guarantee when the victory of full marriage equality will happen, history shows that ordinary people organizing and protesting against oppression can make that day sooner rather than later.
Lonnie Lopez, Seattle

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