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Gay Mundo

Same-Sex Marriage As Civil Disobedience
Upping the ante.
By Eric Rofes

Crispin Hollings (left) and Eric Rofes marry.

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A Historic Opinion

SAN FRANCISCO, FEB. 24, 2004. I recently joined thousands of people defying the laws of my state in a brazen act of civil disobedience. We didn't chain ourselves to a building, sit down in the middle of a crowded intersection, or occupy a public official's office until our demands were met. We simply got married.

Following the vision of our city's new mayor, my lover, Crispin Hollings and I joined almost 2,000 other couples on Valentine's Day in a peaceful, collective statement of our refusal to allow this central institution of democracy to continue to be used as if it were an elite private club. Some see this as status-quo liberal pandering to "heteronormativity." I see it as the catalyst of an activist movement for democracy.

Time for Civil Disobedience
The drive for same-sex marriage has long cried out for peaceful acts of resistance by masses of ordinary people. Marriage equality is about basic values like justice, freedom, and the institutions of democracy, and the emotions and symbols surrounding marriage resonate deeply with Americans of diverse political stripes.

As a tool, civil disobedience takes abstract and highly charged issues and stamps more ordinary human faces onto them. In this case, San Francisco has produced more than 6,000 of these regular citizens who are now ambassadors for marriage equality. Imagine the impact of these newly-wedded people on their families, co-workers, and neighbors.

Statements by national legal and political groups, and images like the marriage of two gay men holding their infant twins, or the long joyful lines at City Hall are extremely powerful, but these 6,000 will create the more personal connections essential to changing the hearts and minds of the mushy middle of the electorate.

Becoming Ambassadors
We arrived at San Francisco City Hall at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Several dozen people were already lined up, awaiting the 10:00 a.m. opening of the city clerk's office. Together with others on the line that soon surrounded City Hall, we took out cell phones and called friends and family from coast-to-coast, getting the word out about our participation in this historic action.

We took photos throughout the four-hour process of waiting on line, receiving our marriage certificate, taking our vows, and filing the marriage with state authorities. Later that day, we sent them out online to family and friends, supporters and otherwise. Before we'd been married for 24 hours, our personal experience in this mass action had been shared with dozens and then passed on to hundreds of people in ever-expanding networks.

Crispin does the public education on this issue with tremendous glee. On returning to work on Monday, he freely shared his ebullience with his co-workers at an airline's engine maintenance shop. He's shown our marriage certificate to members of his work team, including mechanics, engineers, and managers. They all knew he was gay, but now they can see that the abstract issue on the TV news is directly connected to a person with whom they feel some collegiality.

He's phoned his company's human resources office to change my status from "domestic partner" to "spouse," and engaged in friendly musings with the personnel officer about whether the company's legal people have already determined how to handle our new and, perhaps, precarious, status.

Queer Leaders Must Lead
Four years ago, I published an essay calling for queers and their allies to augment our legal and legislative efforts on behalf of same-sex marriage with a powerful direct action and civil disobedience strategy.

While the essay was published in several dozen gay papers throughout the nation, then in the academic journal Social Policy, and finally in an anthology on political activism in the new millennium, I was disappointed that none of the national lesbian and gay political organizations took up the call and mounted a well-planned and carefully organized civil disobedience campaign focused on same-sex marriage. Instead, small collections of local activists and other ad hoc organizers have been the only ones moving in this direction.

In the wake of San Francisco's daring leadership, I'm eager to put forward ideas for additional organizing and civil disobedience. Especially, if we end up grappling with a constitutional amendment battle, it is critical for grassroots activists to be strategically deployed.

Identifying Allies
First, immediate efforts must be put into organizing dozens of other cities, counties, and towns to follow San Francisco's lead by issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples, as well as preparing for the subsequent legal and political challenges.

We have to consider what should be done to convince leaders in other California municipalities, like Berkeley, West Hollywood, Laguna Beach, and Palm Springs, that this is an issue worth taking up with their county leadership. Why hasn't mayor Jerry Brown initiated efforts in Oakland? Might Santa Cruz officials, so daring on medical marijuana issues, be encouraged to join the same-sex marriage fight?

Why haven't similar municipalities around the nation — ranging from Madison, Wisconsin to Key West, Florida; Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas; Ithaca, New York to Ann Arbor, Michigan — joined in the battle? If renegade city clerks in Boulder, Colorado could issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples in 1975, why haven't the political leaders of that progressive center taken leadership today?

Using Massachusetts
Second, the incredible legal and legislative victories in Massachusetts, ground-zero of the marriage fight this year, must be buttressed and infused with creative and strategic approaches once that state begins issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples in May. This will require the kind of sensitive coalition work we've rarely seen in contemporary queer organizing. Local organizers must understand that their efforts have tremendous national implications, while national organizers must be sensitive to the priorities and needs of Massachusetts activists.

Should we organize campaigns to encourage queers throughout the nation to get married in Massachusetts? If Massachusetts is to be home to a statewide vote to change their constitution to keep lesbians and gays from marrying, should we initiate "Freedom Summer" types of efforts to engage in mass face-to-face dialogue all over the state?

We must also make efforts to identify people who are central to the marriage process in America and who, if organized and supported, might be part of additional strategic interventions on behalf of same-sex marriage. For instance, independent county, city, and town clerks are uniquely placed to stand up for marriage equality. Progressive members of the clergy of all denominations seem on the brink of breaking out and participating in additional acts of resistance, if only some group would take on the task of organizing strategy and support for them.

From Issue to Movement
It's tough to guess which major organization would take up this task and join forces with local and ad hoc activists already initiating direct actions on behalf of same-sex marriage. While liberal and Left organizations wrap themselves and their fundraising letters in nostalgic narratives of bus boycotts, campus sit-ins, and ACT UP sieges at federal agencies, they've ceded most street organizing, confrontational actions, and civil disobedience to ad hoc collections of unaffiliated activists.

As a result, we find ourselves addressing the marriage issue at a moment when public officials seem more willing to deploy these tactics than organizations who describe themselves as activist.

While lobbying, media spins and conferencing remain valuable facets of movement building, some organization with extensive resources must step in and get us all going if we want to transform same-sex marriage from an issue to a movement.

Eric Rofes, a professor of education at Humboldt State University, is a long-time organizer and community activist.

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