Tag Archives: gay marriage

On Sitting In, and Standing Up

by Jay Parr

I had a completely different blog entry ready to go this morning, but then I woke from a dream that got me thinking about something more important.

Woolworth's Sit-In

In the dream I was walking into a diner that was attached to a basic travel hotel. There were three or four young women — college athletes dressed in team sweatshirts or some such (you know how vague dreams can be) — sitting on the bench waiting to be seated. The host offered to seat me (and my companions?), when I pointed out that those young women had been there first.

That was when it came to my attention that the diner would not seat unaccompanied women.

I’m proud of my dream self, because I went ballistic. I started off ranting at the poor young host. He was, of course, just an employee, who could either do what he was told or find himself without even this subsistence-level job. In fact, as I pointed past him at the unoccupied counter seating, traditionally used by those who are eating “unaccompanied,” his face kind of looked like the the counter clerk’s in that famous image at the top of this post: Surely sympathetic (I mean, the guy in that picture couldn’t even eat at the counter where he worked), but in no position to even comment on the disparity, much less do anything about it.

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

 After a vague dream-transition I found myself talking to the man in charge. And a police officer. Both were white men. The manager/owner was older, white-haired, and reeked of privilege. Actually, looking back at the dream, he kind of reminds me of Newt Gingrich. He was spewing some nonsense about the morality of allowing unaccompanied young women to come into a family establishment and distract the poor unsuspecting fathers from their families. Because that’s obviously what these college athletes were up to, in their team sweatshirts, with no makeup on, hair pulled up in practical athletic ties, ignoring everyone else and talking shop amongst themselves. Surely it was all a ruse, and they were really there to steal me from my wife and daughter. Oh, and somehow it was their fault that I just might be too weak-willed to control myself? And of course, were I to have such a moment of weakness it would be inconceivable that they might, you know, reject my advances or something.

The cop had been called because some hothead was making a scene.

That’s about all I remember of the dream. That and something about large vehicles getting tangled up at highway speeds (anxiety much?). But as I was setting the coffee to brew this morning I started wondering what I really would have done, had I found myself in a similar situation, say, perhaps at that Woolworth’s counter down on Elm Street on that Monday afternoon in the winter of ’60. I like to think I would have pointed out those four scared but stoic freshmen and politely said, “They were here before me; I’ll wait until they’ve been served.” I mean, I know I wouldn’t have been among the hecklers shouting racist epithets (I’ve always been a little too Quaker for that), but would I have just quietly gotten my order and gone on with my day? Would I have gone home and mentioned the incident to my wife? Would I have been among the Woman’s College (UNCG) or Guilford College students who came downtown to clog the counters with white “customers” insisting that the the black protesters be served first? Or would I have been too busy supporting my family (or perhaps “too busy supporting my family”) to do much more than follow the articles in the newspaper?

pride_flag

The Pride Flag, because not all families are heteronormative.

I definitely connect that issue with North Carolina’s “Amendment One” vote last May. I was vocally against it, not just because I support same-sex marriage (which I do), but all the more so because its wording is so much broader and insidious that it affects any unmarried couple in the state, gay or straight. Oh, and their children.

I learned of the bill’s introduction in the state legislature shortly after an old coworker of mine lost his partner of thirty years and had to endure absurd legal challenges because the state considered my marriage — my second marriage, mind you, which was less than three years old at the time and had been performed in another state — more valid than his decades-long partnership, which had begun before my wife was even born. She and I have been flying a pride flag on our house since the referendum bill passed in the legislature. It’s a small gesture, but it’s how we feel about the issue.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

The fact that those being denied service in my dream were women also points (albeit circuitously) to mainstream America’s complicated and uncomfortable relationship with Islamic nations, Muslim Americans, and Islam in general. I have a problem with any legal system or culture that limits the options of any group merely by virtue of their membership in that group. That goes for nations that curtail the rights of women — some of which do so on religious grounds, and some of which (not all the same ones) are Islamic nations — but it also goes for western nations and institutions that want to limit the rights of Muslim women to wear hijab, niqab, or even burqas. My wife has childhood friends, two sisters, who are Muslim. One of the sisters is divorced from an abusive husband — and the Muslim divorce was a lot simpler than the American legal divorce. The other sister once set aside the injunction against being alone with a man other than her husband, simply so that her sister’s childhood friend’s husband (i.e., yours truly) didn’t have to sit and wait alone. Brought me delicious cardamom tea and we had a delightful conversation amidst the din of playing children. Southern hospitality at its finest. These women are American born and raised. They are not oppressed by a misogynistic culture (well, that’s debatable, but that’s a whole different conversation). Their choice to wear hijab is not a symptom of their oppression, but an expression of their cultural identity. Yes, there are women who wear hijab (and niqab, and burqas) because they are legally bound to do so by oppressive theocratic legal systems. Yes, there are places in the world where unaccompanied women cannot be seated in a restaurant, or drive a car, or even walk down the street, because those in power have deemed it inappropriate. And yes, there are radical Muslim elements that view America(ns) as the godless enemy. But we can’t allow ourselves to conflate an expression of religious and cultural identity (wearing hijab) with sympathy for oppressive governments or violent radicals. Really. It makes as much sense to declare anyone with a crucifix or a rosary in league with the IRA bombers (and don’t get me started on how our media always point out the religious affiliation of “Islamic terrorists” but never that of Christian terrorists). But I digress.

I suppose this post could be an examination of my responsibilities as one who benefits from the privilege of the straight white male, or more broadly, the responsibilities of anyone who benefits from the privilege of majority status. Because I really do feel that whenever I encounter situations in which someone is being denied equal treatment or equal access to resources because of their gender — or their race, or their economic background, or their sexual identity, or their cultural identity, or their citizenship status — that it is my responsibility to call attention to the disparity, to voice my opposition to it, and to subvert it in any way that I can. And I guess that’s why, even in that dream that got me started on this rambling post, I caused enough of a ruckus that someone called the cops. Because really, it’s what I think any of us should do.

What bothers me most, though, is that it never occurred to me to simply say of those unaccompanied girls, “Oh, they’re with me.”

Pride and Prejudice

by Ann Millett-Gallant

From Wednesday, Sept 26 – Sunday, Sept 30, Durham hosted the 28th semi-annual Pride Weekend.  This festival, which began in 1981 and is the largest LGBT event in North Carolina, included a number of colorful performances, including music, dance, karaoke, DJs, and comedy (especially a headliner by Joan Rivers), parties and get-togethers, lunches and dinners, meetings over coffee, walk and runs, church services, vendors, and a lavish and lively parade.  According to their website, the mission of these events is:

  • to promote unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered people
  • to promote a positive image through programs and public activities that foster an awareness of our past struggles
  • to be recognized as an important and talented sector of our diverse state.
  • to support and encourage HIV/AIDS education, breast cancer awareness and basic health education

Although I am in complete support of these missions and always love a good party, I have only attended the parade twice with a friend of mine who is a lesbian.  I was thrilled when my new friend, Jay O’Berski, invited me to be a part of the float hosted this year by his Durham-based theater company, The Little Green Pig.  We all wore t-shirts in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian, Feminist Punk collective who stage activist Guerilla performances all over Moscow and who were recently incarnated (for more information, see this interview).

This is a photo of me in my Pussy Riot t-shirt in the café of the Durham Whole Foods before the parade.  Unfortunately, pouring rain prevented me from marching, or “scooting” in the parade, so I modeled my shirt where other marchers were gathered.  Although the parade was inaccessible to me this year, the spirit of the event inspired me.

The Pussy Riot acts relate to Unit 6 of my course BLS 348: Representing Women, “Performance as Resistance,” and most specifically, the activist work of the Guerilla Girls.

The Guerilla Girls are a performance team whose work includes live actions as well as posters and printed projects to critique the masculine biases of art history. The assigned reading for this class, the Introduction and Conclusion to The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, presents a selection of their written projects, many of which engage irony, satire, and witty sense of humor. The Guerilla Girls call for change and invite others to partake in their protests.

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls challenged the Metropolitan Museum on their lack of representation of female artists. Almost 85% of the Mets’ nudes were female, compared with the only 5% of their collection of work by female artists.  This ad above appeared on New York City buses.

Representing Women also includes an assigned reading on homosexual artists:  Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Artists,” in Amelia Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 128-129.

After the parade and conducting research for this blog, I became aware that one lesson might not be enough.  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program emphasizes diversity and the breadth and wealth of differing human experiences.

Jay Parr raised similar points in his blog post of 9/27/11.  In “The Significance of a Simple Ring,” he discussed his discomfort at seeing a non-married, homosexual man wearing a ring.  Parr analyzed his negative reaction, given his full support of and numerous friendships with the LGBT community.   In the specific context of UNCG, Parr stated: “The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you.”

Parr then focused on the significance of the ring as a symbol of one’s commitment to their spouse, as well as of the legal and social status of marriage.  He advocated that all couples should have the right to the ring and all the significance and rights surrounding it.

Parr’s post predated passage of the marriage amendment to the state constitution in May 2012, which solidified the ban of same sex marriage in North Carolina “Defense of Marriage.”  I felt disappointed and defeated by this law, but maybe, at least, it will motivate those who are against such legislation to speak out.  Not long after this act, President Obama “came out” with his support of same sex marriage, bringing the discussion to nation attention.

Opponents of same sex marriage say it’s an affront to traditional marriage.  Yet, my husband and I, although we are heterosexual, do not have a traditional marriage: we lived together for 3 years before becoming engaged, I proposed to him, and we have no plans, nor desire to have children.  Further, I was born without fingers, so I literally can’t wear a ring.  Nonetheless, we were allowed to get married, and the minister I found online was, I’m pretty sure, a lesbian.  She was ordained, but would not have legally been able to marry a loving partner herself.  In my opinion, bans on same sex marriage are an affront to Civil Rights.  Interracial marriage was legalized in all states not until 1967, and 45 years later we are debating similar issues.  I hope that events like the Pride Parade and public support of same sex marriage will lead toward positive change.

I feel hopeful this Fall, as new television shows such as The New Normal and Couples have strong and openly homosexual characters, adding to the presence of happy, same sex couples on television, in examples such as Modern Family (winner of the most 2012 Emmy awards), Glee, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as popular shows that ended in the past few years, like Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters.  While I hesitate to wish reality would mirror television in general, this is evidence that perhaps American culture is beginning to have more exposure to and familiarity with so-called “Alternative” lifestyles.

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Editor’s note: Ann Millett-Gallant will be giving a book talk about her book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, on Tuesday, November 13, at 3:00 PM, in the Multicultural Resource Center, on the ground floor the Elliott University Center.

The State of Our Unions: Marriage and the Ballot Box

By Carrie Levesque

It’s a frequent topic of discussion in any election year: just how informed is our electorate?  How much does the average voter know about the issues we’re asked to vote on?  Many of us wrestle, standing alone in front of our electronic ballot, with how (or whether) to vote on races or referenda on which we don’t feel educated enough to make an informed decision.  Do we vote for this person because we’ve seen his/her name on a lot of campaign signs?  Funding this or that public project sounds like a good idea, but have I taken the time to find out whether it’s projected to be worth the community investment, or is it some politician’s pet project that serves the interest of few at the expense of many?  And what about when we’re being asked to vote on one group’s civil rights?

Last week in California, a judge ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional.   Meanwhile here in NC, we prepare to vote in May on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Undoubtedly there are many voters at both ends of the political spectrum who already feel pretty unshakeable in their opinions on the matter, but some recent publications have made me think more about how informed the average voter is or needs to be about the institution of marriage and its role in this issue.  Is it enough to rely on our own experiences or taken-for-granted notions without thinking more about what the purpose of marriage is in our culture, what it has been historically, how it has changed and what these changes might mean for its future?

I started thinking about this issue after catching an episode of the afternoon talk show Anderson devoted in part to Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks’ controversial new book Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.  Though his work focuses mainly on race and marriage, when I got myself a copy and started reading, his research led me to other interesting works on the topic of marriage, family and American culture.

In his book, Banks examines two developments that he believes account for the African American marriage decline, the first of which interests me here: that the “rules of the [marriage] market have changed, so that people marry for different reasons and with different expectations than in earlier eras.” Banks references the work of marriage and family scholar Stephanie Coontz, whose 2005 book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, looks at the evolution of marriage from a practical business partnership to a more romanticized, idealized emotional commitment today.  Both Banks and Coontz urge the reader to consider how today’s idea of marriage is a very recent development, not a timeless tradition, and how damaging some of our current expectations about marriage have been to the institution itself.

Another work of interest, Andrew Cherlin’s 2010 book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today looks at a related issue: the way religion and law reinforce “Americans’ embrace of two contradictory cultural ideals: marriage, a formal commitment to share one’s life with another; and individualism, which emphasizes personal choice and self-development” (Amazon.com).


Other works treat the issue of same-sex marriage more directly, like E.J. Graff’s What is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (a pro-gay work which also uses historical perspective to argue that the idea of ‘traditional marriage’ is an oxymoron) and the more conservative scholarly collection What’s the Harm?: Does Legalizing Same Sex Marriage Really Harm Individual Families or Society?, edited by Lynn Wardle.  Whatever your position, why not check out one of these books to find out more about what the other side is all about?   In the bigger picture, it can only help us bridge the painful divide over this issue if we all begin to understand more about the opposing sides’ needs, fears and motivations, even if we don’t agree with them.

Many people think that what we know about marriage from personal experience or the teachings we’ve grown up with is enough, but isn’t part of the purpose of higher education to make us question precisely these sources, or at least the practice of relying on them exclusively?   Don’t we experience again and again in our BLS courses the benefit of having our ingrained ideas challenged, broadened, or deepened by new perspectives, new historical or cultural frameworks?  Even if you think you know what marriage is, and why this right should or should not be extended to gay and lesbian couples, why not check out any of these books and see what others have to say on the topic?  It may not change your mind, but it will make you more informed at the polls this May.

Standing on Ceremony

By Marc Williams

In the theatre, opening night is a special occasion.  Months, sometimes years, of work are finally complete and an audience is welcomed into the space to not only witness but also participate in the performance.  As a stage director, my work is officially complete on opening night—and this is true for many of the collaborators involved in a production as well.  In fact, for a lot of theatre folk, opening night is about the only time they “dress up” to go to the theatre. It is a night of celebration.

On November 7, I attended a very special opening night.  Standing on Ceremony, which opened that night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City, is a collection of eight short plays by some of the country’s finest playwrights.  What’s unusual about this world-premiere event is that Standing on Ceremony simultaneously premiered in more than fifty other theatres at the exact same moment.  I wasn’t in New York for opening night—I was right here in Greensboro on the campus of Guilford College.

The Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moises Kaufman, co-produced this event, for which eight writers each contributed a play on the issue of same-sex marriage.  As the New York cast was preparing these plays for the official opening night performance, other theatre companies around the country—and even a few international companies—were provided scripts so they too could present Standing on Ceremony in their community on opening night.  All of these performances began and ended at the same time, so audiences across the country and world were discovering these new plays at the same time.

In New York, a portion of the production’s proceeds will benefit Freedom to Marry and other organizations dedicated to marriage equality.  The other theatres across the country followed suit, taking donations from audiences to benefit local organizations dedicated to marriage equality in their community. Representatives from EqualityNC, for example, attended the Guilford College performance, using the event to recruit volunteers, distribute literature about North Carolina’s upcoming same-sex marriage ban amendment vote, and ask voters to pledge to attend the primary in May 2012, when the amendment will be on the ballot.

When it at its best, theatre can serve as a lens, allowing that particular audience to examine itself not only as individuals but also as a community.  Naturally, each audience and each community is unique, which means that every production of every play is received in unique way.  This is the reason I tell my BLS classes that a production of a play is a simultaneous expression of two societies: that of the author and that of the audience.  While the author’s society is fixed in history, the audience’s society is always changing—from place to place or year to year.

The performance of Standing on Ceremony I attended was a great example of how this phenomenon works.  New York is one of six places in the United States that permits gay marriage, while North Carolina is one of forty-four places in the United States that forbids same-sex marriage—and the upcoming constitutional amendment vote could make the existing laws even more restrictive. The audiences in New York and North Carolina, therefore, have different experiences with the issue of same-sex marriage and would certainly have differing emotional and intellectual responses to the performance.

Standing on Ceremony has a distinctly pro-same-sex marriage theme—I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone who attended the play was in agreement with its political agenda.  As I sat in the theatre watching the plays and contemplating the issue, I thought about audiences in Iowa and New York, and other states where same-sex marriage is legal, and wondered how they were responding to the plays. Surely there were legally married same-sex couples in attendance!  Were they proud?  Hopeful?  But I also thought of audiences in Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and all across the South—where amendments banning same-sex marriage have already been approved.  What would be their reaction to a play about an issue that was already decided in their state by a constitutional ban?  And naturally, my thoughts turned back to North Carolina.  On November 7, 2011, the audience seemed hopeful.  How might we respond to a production of Standing on Ceremony twelve months from now? Still hopeful?

Constitutional Amendments, Moral Gridlock, and the Unique Case of Same-Sex Marriage

By Wade Maki

Change is a slow process… until it isn’t. These two “truthy” nuggets help explain American moral progress. Reflect upon the state of American moral issues such as the death penalty, abortion, physician assisted suicide, and drug use in 2011. Now compare the state of these issues today to attitudes in 1981, just three decades ago. While a few state laws and minor policy modifications have occurred, the change over 30 years is evolutionary not revolutionary. None of these issues have resulted in widespread constitutional amendments.

To further underscore the lack of major moral change, just look at other changes from 1981-2011. A brief list should include the internet, cell phones, women in positions of power, and of course an African American President. A time traveller going back to ‘81 would find none of these things and would be locked in a padded cell for predicting them.

The pace of change in technology and society contrasts strikingly with how little change occurs on moral issues, making same-sex or gay marriage truly extraordinary.  Gay marriage was not even on the radar in 1981. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that sodomy could be criminalized. That ruling was not overturned until 2003 (Lawrence & Gardner v. Texas).

Only in the latter 1990’s did the question of gay marriage garner serious attention and even then it was more of a political rallying cry in opposition to it, which made it an issue. To this day few major politicians have supported same-sex marriage yet a majority of states have amended their constitutions to outlaw something which wasn’t legal or even seriously considered by the political class. We have never seen other moral issues rise to the level of amending constitutions across the country in this way.

So, in less than 20 years a non-issue has become a major moral issue for America. I first included this topic in my Vice Crime and American Law course in 2006. Already, most everything I wrote about has become ancient history. From a single state with a civil union law we now see full gay marriage (GM) rights in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington D.C.

In California alone, we’ve seen chaos around the issue where the Mayor of San Francisco decided to grant GM license on his own authority only to be stopped by the courts only to be reversed statewide by other courts. Then in 2008 an anti GM referendum reinstated the ban but that referendum is now tied up in even more court proceedings.

These changes are uncharacteristically fast for a controversial moral issue in American law. Perhaps this is best explained by demographics where most issues might split near 60%-40% across all age groups (like abortion or the death penalty) gay marriage support varies widely based upon age. A large majority of those over 65 oppose gay marriage whereas the vast majority of the under 35 group support it. Given this trend the future expansion of gay marriage rights over time is to be expected.

This is why the North Carolina Legislature’s action to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage this primary election is so out of touch. It bans something our law already prohibits, enshrines a form of discrimination into our constitution, and sets us up for a harsh judgment from history. Unless today’s young people or their children suddenly change their mind about gay marriage it is only a matter of time before these constitutional bans fall away just like those bans on interracial marriage or sodomy.

Many authors make a strong moral and legal case for gay marriage. Rather than replicate the good work of others I suggest we avoid the harsh judgment of history by actively opposing this amendment this coming primary election. North Carolina voters should envision those whites who stood in the way of integrated schools, or men who opposed the rise of women, or the states that held fast to interracial marriage and sodomy statutes. In each case the future was clear and those who stood in the way are not judged kindly.

Opposing this amendment is the right thing to do for reasons I’ve offered and many I haven’t. The fact that it comes up in a primary election makes your vote all the more important. Turnout is generally low and with a contested Republican presidential primary, the electorate will be older and more conservative thus more likely to vote for the amendment.

I’m proud to live in North Carolina and also proud that we are the only state in the south east not to amend our constitution to ban gay marriage. We can remain proud tomorrow by defeating this amendment today.

The Significance of a Simple Ring

By Jay Parr

A few months ago, I was at a training seminar when I observed that the main presenter was wearing a wedding ring. I didn’t think much about it, not consciously anyway, but I realized later that somewhere at a deeply subconscious, perhaps even unconscious level, I had made a whole set of assumptions about him based solely on that little piece of metal. I assumed he had a wife, of course. Given his age, I assumed the likelihood of children, probably in elementary school, or maybe in high school if they had gotten started young. I assumed all the trappings of the suburban middle-class academic’s life: A house with a mortgage and a lawn, a couple of modest but versatile cars, a household balancing the various pressures of work and home life, quiet evenings at home in front of the tube, subtle jokes about having become boring homebodies … sound familiar? Yeah, me too.

But then it came up later in the seminar that he was not married. Not legally, anyway. Not in North Carolina. He couldn’t have been, because he was in a committed relationship with another man.

I felt cheated. I felt as if he had violated some sort of social contract by wearing that ring. For that one visceral moment I felt as if he had committed some egregious act of deception. He had completely misrepresented himself to me, as if he were some meth-dealing pimp coached by his defense attorney to cut his hair and wear a suit, glasses, and a wedding ring to court so he could beat that drug-related murder rap. Liar!

Extreme? Yes, it was. But for that one fraction of a second, that’s exactly how I felt. And I literally felt it. In my gut. Much as I had felt it when my oldest brother’s telephone-filtered voice told me that our father had died. My reaction was that strong, and that visceral.

The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you. You see, I’ve been an “ally” since back before the queer community had such a concise word for us odd, friendly breeders. Back when I was in high school during the AIDS crisis, something like two-thirds of my closest friends were gay or lesbian. The parties I went to were mostly gay folks. The nightspots I went to were mostly gay hangouts. Any girl I was currently crushing on, the odds were about two-to-one she didn’t bat for my team. I didn’t think about it a lot; it was just the way things were. As often as one of my friends disappointed me with “no, she’s gay,” one of them was disappointing someone else about me with “no, he’s straight.” The joys and the dramas of the relationships in my circle didn’t seem to be much affected by the genders or orientations of the people in them. People hooked up. They fell in love. They had relationships. Sometimes those relationships were glorious. Sometimes they were quietly successful. Sometimes they needed work, and sometimes they just didn’t work out. Once in a while, someone would throw us all a curve-ball and jump the fence. Sometimes it was a momentary experiment. Sometimes it was the beginning of a twenty-year relationship. Gay, straight, male, female, or anywhere in the liminal spaces in between, it didn’t really have a significant impact on the overall pattern. Love was love, in all its inspiring, insane, messy, and complicated glory.

I’ve also had a strongly egalitarian mindset for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure of the source of that mindset. Maybe it comes from growing up in a little farming town where folks were just folks, whether they were the mayor or the town drunk. Maybe it comes from identifying strongly with my mother in a still-misogynistic rural culture. Maybe it comes from spending my tween years as the poor white kid in a professional black neighborhood. Maybe it comes from seeing the crap my gay high-school friends caught just for being gay. Regardless, I have long been of the opinion that everyone deserves the same rights I enjoy as a straight, white, native-born American male. For decades, that has included the belief that committed same-sex couples deserve all the legal rights and recognitions of their heterosexual counterparts. It took me a while to come around about the word “marriage,” but that was largely because I felt it was a hot-button word that was more likely to incite a knee-jerk reaction from the conservative religious right, and that toning down the semantics (“civil union” or “domestic partnership”) would be a little more pragmatic in terms of getting it through the legislature.

So why did I, with that background, have such a gut-level reaction to one man’s ring? Especially given the context of the setting, and of my own professed open-mindedness, I was disturbed by my reaction, and I had to take some time to reflect on it. In the end, I could only come up with one thing: We as a culture implicitly associate the wearing of a wedding ring not just with the social status of being in a committed relationship, but also with the legal status of licensed marriage. And no such legal status exists between a man and another man in the state of North Carolina.

The implicit statement made by that lack of legal status, though it may not be intentional, is that no relationship between members of the same gender could ever be stable enough, or legitimate enough, to “deserve” a ring. It says that my marriage with my wife, which is just past the three-year mark, is somehow more legitimate than my friend G’s relationship with his partner of over thirty years. More insidiously, it means that anyone who wants to exclude him from visiting his partner in the hospital, or who wants to withhold information about his partner’s medical condition, is free to do so without recourse, because he is not legally a family member. It means that in order for him to make medical decisions on his partner’s behalf, he is required to produce a legal document, signed and notarized, granting him medical power of attorney. It adds layers of legal complexity to the holding of any joint property, such as real estate, cars, and bank accounts, and it means that when one of them dies, the surviving partner is not automatically guaranteed the right of survivorship in the disposition of those assets, as would be the case in my relatively brief, but state-sanctioned marriage. It means that without a ream of legal documentation, a belligerent  and homophobic sibling who has not seen the deceased partner in decades could, literally, step in as next of kin and deny the surviving partner any access to the deceased partner’s assets or end-of-life decisions.

In a very literal, legal sense, the lack of legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships relegates the partners in those relationships to the status of second-class citizens. They have almost none of the legal rights that their legally-married, heterosexual counterparts take for granted. To make matters worse, the North Carolina legislature has recently approved a referendum on a “Defense of Marriage” constitutional amendment stating that “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State” (PDF). That amendment will go to a popular vote in the May primary election, when historically only a small portion of the population bothers to vote. When that happens, it is entirely possible that a small minority of North Carolina voters could etch those definitions into the legal bedrock of our state constitution. I think it’s pretty obvious how I feel about that possibility.

We in the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program try to look at the world from as many various points of view as we can reasonably accommodate. The literature course I most frequently teach looks at the world through the eyes of various socioeconomic classes, of immigrants of various stripes, of disenfranchised minorities and comfortable socialites, of poor rural and middle-class urban African-Americans, of drafted soldiers and reservation-dwelling Native Americans. One of the readings in that class follows a middle-class youth coming to terms with his own homosexuality. Many other classes in the BLS Program have much the same emphasis on the variety of human experience. I am tempted to fall back on a tired metaphor of life as a sculpture, and not a painting, as something that can look very different from different points of view, and that cannot be fully appreciated without taking in as many angles as possible. The truth is that if any of us only views the world from within our own, limited, point of view, we are missing out on the wonderful variety and diversity of the human experience.

When it comes right down to it, for all I know some of my assumptions about that man with his ring are probably correct. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that he and his partner do have a house with a mortgage and a lawn, a couple of modest but versatile cars, a household balancing the various pressures of work and home life, quiet evenings at home in front of the tube, and subtle jokes about having become boring homebodies. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

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If you want to read further, here’s the history of the “Defense of Marriage” bill in North Carolina’s 2011-2012 legislative session (primary sources):