Current Affairs

Switch of tactics on marriage splits US activists

Amy Bourke March 20, 2007
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Supporters of gay marriage in America have been outraged by the tide turning against their cause, even amongst other gay rights advocates.

Bills to legalise gay marriage have been introduced in the state of Rhode Island every year for the past ten years, and have been rejected every time.

So this year, as well as filing for the legalisation of gay marriage, campaigners are fighting for basic rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples without the label of marriage.

The advocates are proposing six separate bills. One would give same-sex parents the right to take family leave if their partner, or their partner’s children, should fall ill.

Another bill would give gay couples the right to plan their partner’s funerals, or to file a wrongful death lawsuit, should their partner die.

Couples would also be protected from testifying against each other in a court of law.

Aronda Kirby and Digit Murphy of Rhode Island were both once married to men, but lost the protections that marriage afforded them when they came out as lesbians and moved in together with their six children.

Murphy is supportive of the decision to fight for individual rights as opposed to the institution of marriage. She told AP: “We’ve had all the rights, so we want them back. We don’t care how we get them.”

Aronda Kirby isn’t sure that she would want to marry again, but she does want the same rights as heterosexuals, particularly when it comes to caring for her partner and children.

However, traditional proponents of gay marriage worry that this tactic will negatively effect their years of campaigning.

Never before have gay marriage proponents accepted less than marriage by choice.

Court decisions in New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut have forced gay couples to accept civil unions as a compromise, rather than marriage.

In Washington, civil union rights may be granted under a domestic partnership bill. Campaigners adopted the approach after losing a court case they hoped would cement gay marriage in legislation.

Senator Edward Murray of Washington told AP: “It’s very new. If I had suggested this strategy a year or two ago, I would have been run out of my district.”

Supporters of the new proposals in Rhode Island and Washington stress that they are still committed to gay marriage, and will support marriage bills, however likely they are to fail.

Their approach has been described as a ‘two-pronged squeeze’, testing whether the same legislators who threw out gay marriage proposals will do the same to basic rights.

“The hold-up is about marriage, not about the protections,” said Jenny Steinfeld, who leads the advocacy group Marriage Equality RI. “So we’re giving them an opportunity to show us that.”

Carrie Evans is the ex-director of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington D.C. She said: “I think with legislators, just like the public, people don’t change their minds on marriage equality… overnight.”

“Often time, we have to bring people along with us and that may be the incremental approach in some states.”

Many have questioned whether advocates in Rhode Island and Washington campaigned hard enough before giving up on marriage.

Evan Wolfson, leader of the Freedom to Marry group, criticises the two-pronged approach. He said: “I am against us going into the conversation bargaining against ourselves. You don’t get half a loaf by asking for half a loaf.”

Wolfson described the efforts of campaigners in Rhode Island and Washington as “under optimistic.” He suggested that any lawmakers who instil civil unions or domestic partnerships are dismissing gay couples as second-class citizens.

Individuals states differ in their approach to same-sex marriage. In New York, campaigners are pushing for a marriage bill because they are supported by Governor Elliot Spitzer.

In Oregon, supporters are pushing an anti-discrimination bill as well as civil unions. Gay marriage has been banned there since 2004.

Similar bills banning gay marriage have been passed in New Jersey, New York, New Mexico and Rhode Island.

Last month Rhode Island’s Attorney General, Patrick Lynch, conceded that gay marriages performed in Massachusetts would be legally recognised in Rhode Island. Massachusetts is the only American state to have legalised gay marriage so far.

In California, Connecticut and Maryland, lawsuits are pending on the issue of gay marriage, but Evans told AP she would be surprised if gay marriage legislation got through in any state this year.

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