Speaking of Women's Rights: Can We Really Have A Civil Debate on Marriage Equality?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Can We Really Have A Civil Debate on Marriage Equality?

Last week, I was in Olympia to watch opponents of Washington’s marriage equality law turn in petitions to put Referendum 74 on the ballot. In case you haven’t heard, this means voters will have to Approve Referendum 74 in the November election to keep the marriage equality law for lesbian and gay couples that Governor Gregoire signed earlier this year.

The group that collected signatures to put marriage equality to a public vote is called Preserve Marriage Washington (“PMW”). At a press conference, PMW’s spokesperson called for a “civil debate” on Referendum 74.

My initial reaction was that calling for a “civil debate” was bit of a throwaway line; it’s not like most people support having an “uncivil” debate. But it did make me think about what it would really mean to have a civil debate on marriage equality.

If it means not shouting at each other, I’m fine with that – although as Dan Savage has pointed out, it’s not surprising that LGBT folks get a little “shouty” when our rights and our families are at stake. Especially when our opponents include the infamous Westboro Baptist Church,which was also in Olympia last week to spread their message of anti-gay hate.

If it means being polite to each other, I agree with that too. We managed to do that last week when marriage equality supporters and PMW representatives sat together for hours in the same room watching the Secretary of State’s office conduct the extremely tedious task of counting the R-74 petition sheets. We made polite chit-chat without any incident (although I was a little surprised by the response I got when I asked one of the PMW folks where she lived; she responded by telling me that her son is a police officer. In the interest of civility, I assume she meant that as a joke).

But having a “civil debate” on marriage equality should mean more than just minding our manners. When people vote on Referendum 74, they will literally be voting on how lesbian and gay people are allowed to live our lives, form our families, and protect our most important relationships. They will also be voting on whether to keep a marriage equality law that our elected representatives adopted by a bipartisan vote after extensive legislative debate. That should put this debate on a higher plane than most ballot measures, and should demand a higher standard of debate.

So here are some ideas about what I think a “civil debate” on marriage equality should look like:
  • Let’s be clear that this civil debate concerns civil marriage. We’re talking about whether the state may issue marriage licenses to committed lesbian and gay couples. It’s not about religious marriage; no church or religious organization will be required to perform marriage ceremonies or to accommodate marriage celebrations for same-sex couples.
  • Let’s keep in mind that thousands of children in Washington have lesbian and gay parents. There are also thousands of LGBT youth in our state. As a group, LGBT adults are pretty tough; most of us have dealt with anti-gay bullying, harassment, and discrimination at some point in our lives. But I hope my new friends at PMW will be mindful of our kids and LGBT youth during this debate – and how they will be hurt by ads suggesting that LGBT families or youth deserve less respect or protection than others.
  • Let’s focus on whether allowing civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples will actually harm anyone in Washington state. We’re not operating in a vacuum here. Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, and the District of Columbia have already extended the freedom to marry to lesbian and gay couples. Is there even one heterosexual couple in any of those states who can honestly say their marriage has been harmed as a results?
Normally, I’d be skeptical that we can have this kind of debate. But if I can chat politely for hours with the people who are working to take away my freedom to marry the person I love, maybe anything is possible.