Same-sex marriage: A sign of changing times

IMG_1196_optChange is inevitable. Suffering is optional. And when more than 300 same-sex marriages took place last year in the state of Michigan, it forever changed the landscape of what marriage means and how it is viewed throughout the city, state and country.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments, for approximately three hours, on whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, positioning it to resolve one of the great civil rights questions in a generation before its current term ends in June.
This is an especially exciting time for young men like Greg Hawkins, 40, and Zac Brandt, 38, who were one of the first 300 to get married. For 15 years, they have dealt with the struggles of being openly gay along with being an interracial couple. Both feel that a victory would wipe away the awful stigmatism that plagues not only the LGBT community, but their families as well.
“For us it’s about being able to show people the naturalness of our lives,” said Hawkins, who kept his identity as a gay man secret for many years. “We are who we are. We are here to help people understand the connections of our struggle. Because the struggle of the LGBT community, if you take away the pictures and listen to the words, those same words were used in the ’60s. These are words that people used to separate us. But we all realize that we are just as normal as anybody else.”
For decades, young gay Black males in particular have had a especially hard time redefining their masculinity, coping with racism and homophobia, which many feel makes the Black gay male experience a unique and particularly difficult one.
“I was lucky, I have always had a mother who was extremely supportive,” said Hawkins, who works for Chrysler and heads up their Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA). “So that always helped me understand who I am. However, for me, the struggle came at work, where I kept it a secret for many years. It wasn’t until I came out to my colleagues…it was then that I had come full circle.”
The cases before the court come from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, all of which had their marriage bans upheld by the federal appeals court in Cincinnati in November. The court would decide whether gay and lesbian couples can marry and have their marriages recognized in 50 states.
Until now, the justices have sidestepped the issue, which has clearly allowed a number of states to act — the number of states allowing same-sex marriage has since grown to 37, and more than 70 percent of Americans live in places where gay couples can marry.
With 37 of the 50 states now permitting gay marriage, many because of judicial orders, it seems unlikely the country’s highest court would reverse course. Public opinion polls over the last decade have shown a large increase in support for gay marriage. A ruling is due by the end of June.
The plaintiffs believe they have a fundamental right to marry and to be treated as opposite-sex couples are, adding that bans they challenged demeaned their dignity, imposed countless practical difficulties and inflicted particular harm on their children.
“I think it’s about showing the world that we love each other and that we are comfortable with each other,” Brandt said. “In public, being this loving couple, is the only way that people are going to change their minds. I think it will give people a very good view of…it’s not what they have built up in their head. If this changes one individual’s mindset or many people’s mindset, it sends a wonderful message that you have to be comfortable being who you are.”
The Michigan case, DeBoer v. Snyder, No. 14-571, was brought by April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two nurses. They sued to challenge the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. In urging the Supreme Court to hear their case, they asked the justices to do away with “the significant legal burdens and detriments imposed by denying marriage to same-sex couples, as well as the dignity and emotional well-being of the couples and any children they may have.”
Gov. Rick Snyder, joined the plaintiffs in urging the Supreme Court to hear the case. The pace of change on same-sex marriage, in both popular opinion and in the courts, has no parallel in the nation’s history. Gay rights advocates have hailed the court’s move as one of the final steps in a decades-long journey toward equal treatment. Now they are just waiting to prevail.
“At this point we are very comfortable in our work lives,” Hawkins said. “Our companies provide wonderful support. The problem is that we have to get past the state and its issues. We’re waiting for all of this stuff to be done. We’re waiting for that time to come. We already understand what it means to build a relationship and a life together.”
The high-stakes legal battle is the culmination of a long struggle in the courts, state legislatures and at the ballot box. Public opinion has changed — dramatically — more than on any major social issue in recent history.
In 1996, public opinion polls showed, on average, only 27 percent of the public favored legalization of same-sex marriage. This year, although there are states that still adamantly resist gay marriage, public opinion polls put the approval number nationally at well over 50 percent.
Tuesday’s courtroom battle was about states’ rights against the fundamental right to marry; it was about the traditional definition of marriage against a more modern definition; and it was about majority rights against minority rights.
Before the court are the consolidated cases of 12 couples and two widowers. Among them are nurses, teachers, veterinarians, an Army sergeant and businessmen and businesswomen. They filed lawsuits not to further a cause, but because of the way the bans affected their lives and that of their children.
“For us, getting married was just as much about us being able to exercise our American fundamental right as it was about our love for each other,” said Brandt, who also noted that they do plan to start a family, if and when the law is changed. “We are married in the eyes of everyone that we know except the state. We pay taxes just like everyone else. We’re a married couple in the state of Michigan.”
Zack Burgess is director/owner of Off Woodward Media, LLC. His work can be seen at zackburgess.com. Twitter: @zackburgess1

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