Taking action for same-sex marriage

February 25, 2010

NEW YORK--Four members of the group Queer Rising were arrested at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau February 12 as the finale to several actions to demand equal marriage rights on the Friday before Valentine's Day.

By 8 a.m., 40 people had gathered in the small park across from the marriage office. Half of the crowd paired into same-sex couples and lined up outside the marriage bureau. At 8:30, when the office opened, the couples got in line alongside women in white gowns and nervous different-sex couples.

When each pair of demonstrators arrived at the clerk's desk, they read from a printed slip: "We are a same-sex couple and we are here to apply for a marriage license." The clerk repeated for each request: "I'm sorry, but we can only offer you domestic partnership in the state of New York at this time."

The first couple from the Queer Rising wasn't same-sex. A lesbian, Natasha Dillon, and a gay man, Sergio Llanos, were easily given papers that neither can get with their real-life partners. After filling out the license application, Dillon and Llanos stepped outside and joined the chanting group of rejected couples and protesters.

Over a megaphone, Dillon gave a speech, while Llanos waved their newly awarded papers. Dillon pointed out how easily she and Llanos were granted a license even though they're not a couple--yet couples throughout the country who share homes, lives, children and families aren't given this right. As Dillon said in conclusion: "There's no logical reason for this injustice."

After Dillon's speech ended, there was commotion across the street. Four protesters--Alan Bounville, Jake Goodman, Justin Elzie and Gabriel Yuri Bollag--had chained themselves together and to the stairs in front of the marriage office. The four chanted loudly as the crowd crossed the street to join them. In unison, all the protesters joined in: "I am! Somebody! And I deserve! Full Equality!" Eventually, police moved in, cut the chains and handcuffed all four.

The demonstration got attention in the network of magazines, newspapers, Web sites and blogs in the LGBT community. Within 24 hours, there was a report on the Atlantic and Perez Hilton sites.

One week later, the four arrestees were in court on charges of obstructing government administration and two charges of disorderly conduct. They accepted pleas of adjournment contemplating dismissal (ACD) from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, which would lead to the dismissal of all charges after six months if the four aren't arrested again.

"As long as the state of New York maintains a policy which codifies that the love between two men or two women is inferior to the love between a man and a woman, these actions will continue," said Ted Bohn, co-counsel for the defendants. "This was only the beginning."

On the day after the marriage bureau protest in New York City, another branch of Queer Rising in Albany led its first action, also set for the same Valentine's Day weekend. In a shopping mall in Albany, same-sex couples stood hugging in mall pathways to display LGBT affection in a commercial public space where their love isn't typically depicted. Groups based around civil disobedience and direct action have formed in Boston and central Pennsylvania.

THE GROUP Queer Rising was formed two weeks after the New York state Senate voted 38-to-24 against a same-sex marriage bill. According to the New York Times, the vote "followed more than a year of lobbying by gay rights organizations, who steered close to $1 million into New York legislative races to boost support for the measure. Senators who voted against the measure said the public was gripped by economic anxiety and remained uneasy about changing the state's definition of marriage."

It's not clear what public the senators were referring to, but it definitely wasn't the huge crowds that protested their decision throughout the state that following week. At one demonstration in Union Square in Manhattan, hundreds scrambled to get their names on a list to attend what would become Queer Rising's first meeting. As the announcement for the meeting read:

As we have seen this week alone, win-some-lose-some tactics does not ensure that all of us are treated equal under the law. The incrementalist approach to gaining full equality has lagged on long enough. It is time for consistent, well-planned acts of civil disobedience for the whole of our nation to know we, those who believe in equality for all, will no longer wait for judges, legislators and executives to dole out what is rightfully ours. And we will no longer accept the notion that anyone has the right to vote on civil liberties.

With only five states performing legal same-sex marriage--and two states having revoked legal equal marriage--people are rightly fed up with waiting for the politicians.

David Mixner, a well-known writer and LGBT activist, recently endorsed the turn toward direct action and civil disobedience. On his blog, he proposed a national campaign called "No Excuses" to demand that Obama and the Congressional leadership issue a "stop-loss order" on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. If the administration doesn't respond, Mixner said, "we should stage sit-ins at congressional leadership offices until there's a vote. Under no circumstances should we wait for another year for a worse Congress for a vote."

The wave of fresh and determined energy in the LGBT movement is combining lessons from the past with creative ideas in the present. Keep your eyes peeled for more acts of civil disobedience and direct action in the coming months.

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