Today, December 6, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court is hearing arguments regarding the appeal of a lower court decision that Proposition 8, California's anti-gay marriage initiative, violates the federal constitution. It is one small skirmish in a long and continuing battle over marriage equality that has dominated the news and the public's perceptions of what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in America today.
But how important is marriage to gay people themselves, especially those who live in the vast "fly over" areas of the American heartland, far away from urban safe zones such as Chelsea and the Castro?
For the past year, we've been listening to LGBT people and their allies in small towns and rural communities talk about their lives and concerns in a series of town hall events held in conjunction with the Out in the Silence Campaign for Fairness and Equality. This community engagement effort is based on a documentary film that begins with a same-sex marriage controversy in a small conservative town, and many of the screenings have been held in collaboration with organizations working on marriage equality; e.g., Basic Rights Oregon and the Rural Organizing Project, which co-sponsored the event in Bend, Or. shown in the video clip.
In over 200 such events, however, the number of times that audience members have brought up marriage as a priority issue is essentially nil. Their concerns are more basic: the ability to live their lives openly with dignity, respect, and most importantly, with safety and security.
- A young man from a small town in Pennsylvania recalled what happened after he came out at age 16: His father placed him in the trunk of his car and drove him two hours to a relative's house where family members told him that he would be killed if he let anyone know he was gay.
- An older lesbian couple in Maryland related how they had to leave the farm they'd been working for 12 years after a new neighbor started shooting, with a rifle, at their house and the local sheriff refused to intervene.
- A teacher from a farming community in South Dakota spoke of the horrendous, violent bullying she had witnessed in her small town high school, and of her frustration at not being able to intervene for fear that she might lose her job for being too "gay friendly."
It's not surprising that these folks don't have much time to worry about marriage given the threats to their physical safety, family relations and livelihoods. And yet marriage equality does have a real impact on their lives. Why? Because without it, they are seen as second class citizens, without equal rights, people who it is perfectly acceptable to treat differently according to their own government.
As Aubrey Harrison from Basic Right Oregon puts it, if her marriage to another woman is not "real," even to some of her own family members, then what does that say about her as a person?
Until Proposition 8 and all the other laws that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples are repealed, LGBT people will not be full people in the eyes of the law or of society. That's not acceptable, and it's why everyone, even those of us living in the most remote and overlooked parts of America, need to be concerned about equal rights for all, including the right to marry.