Don’t deny gays, lesbians full American dream

Friday, Feb. 10, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Illustration by Georgia MacDonald⁄The Gazette

Last month, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge analyzed a 1973 Maryland law that denies same-sex couples the ability to legally marry. She declared this law a clear violation of our state constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment.

In response, many individuals, including our governor, condemned the ruling and stated they would do whatever it takes to protect ‘‘traditional marriage,” including support a constitutional amendment.

Just what these detractors of marriage equality mean with their rhetoric is open to interpretation. Does this mean they don’t believe two people of the same sex can love each other as much as a heterosexual couple? Do they think the ‘‘traditional” institution of marriage in Maryland has been the same since the founding of our state? Do they feel that gay and lesbian couples don’t need the same legal protections other couples already have should a spouse take ill, lose a job, weather tough financial times or face the uncertainties of old age? Or perhaps they simply believe the children of gay and lesbian couples don’t deserve the same safeguards as other children whose parents are allowed a legal relationship to one another.

Some people argue a constitutional amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples is necessary because gay people want to fundamentally change the institution of marriage. It’s true. Allowing same-sex couples to marry is an evolution, but the institution of marriage has already changed dramatically over time.

Years ago, women were not full participants in a marriage. They had no rights to property and no legal recourse if raped by a husband. Until the early 20th century, marriages performed by non-Christian clergy were not allowed. In fact, marriages performed by non-clergy were not legalized in Maryland until 1967. (Today, 40 percent of marriages in Maryland are performed by clerks of the court or judges).

Until a Baltimore Circuit Court ruling in 1957, there was a criminal prohibition on interracial marriages; the then-societal notion of ‘‘traditional marriage” did not include allowing people of different races to marry. The courts played a role in many of these advances.

Some people feel marriage must be a heterosexuals-only club to ‘‘protect” children, as though gay people cannot be good parents. Want to insult a gay or lesbian individual? Make this insinuation. And you’ll be wrong. Just ask every respectable organization of pediatricians, social workers, psychiatrists and child welfare experts, all who agree that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well as children raised by heterosexuals.

So, I ask again what it means when people say they want to ‘‘protect traditional marriage” by defining it in the constitution. This is not the first time some have sought to legally ‘‘define” marriage in a constitution. In 1948, after California’s Supreme Court became the first in the country to strike down its interracial marriage ban as unconstitutional, some states rushed to declare marriage as the union of ‘‘two white people, two Mongolians or two Negroes,” lest their own state courts do the same. It isn’t discriminatory, they said, because we’re not preventing anyone from getting married, just people of color from marrying whites and vice versa. As late as 1958, polls reported more than 95 percent of whites still disapproved of marriages between blacks and whites. ‘‘Let the people vote,” proponents clamored.

Now, a Circuit Court has determined that the Maryland is being violated every time a same-sex couple is forced to remain legal strangers in the eyes of the law. Sadly, the irrational fear of granting legal parity to the relationships of same-sex couples is so great that some seek to amend this group of people — and their children — right out of our constitution and say that its provisions of equal protection do not apply. The Maryland constitution has been amended 217 times, but never, ever to limit rights. Every single amendment has been for expanding and clarifying rights.

If our state government has evolved over time to ensure that people who love someone of another race, women and non-Christians can avail themselves of its protections, if experts say children fare just fine with same-sex parents, and if clergies’ prerogative to refuse to marry interfaith couples, divorced individuals or gay couples is constitutionally enshrined what is the reason to deny the gay couple down the street the ability to legalize their union?

Most of us want the same things in life — to find our purpose and meaning for being here, to be good people without having our morality questioned by others with differing spiritual beliefs, to contribute to society, to fall in love, and for many of us to marry and raise children. Why should anyone want to deny the full American dream to gays and lesbians?

Ask yourself, do I want to be a person who declares that the constitution shouldn’t protect gays and lesbians because I am personally uncomfortable with the idea of them marrying? Would I want my rights, my love and my family placed for a popular vote?

Look into your own hearts, and you will see ours as well, beating just as strongly, and yearning for fairness and justice and life and love.

Dan Furmansky is executive director of Equality Maryland, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization based in Silver Spring