Thoughts on the book Marriage: Voices from a Forty-Year Labor of Love by Matt Baume

“On February 27, 2004, Mayor Jason West married 25 same-sex couples before a cheering crowd in front of the New Paltz Village Hall.”

defining marriageArthur introduced me, electronically speaking, to Matt Baume, whose regular Marriage News Watch video he often linked to. Now Baume has written a “book based on his experiences in the fight for marriage equality in the USA.”

I should note that I was able to download it for free during the promotional week. Also, I HATE reading on my Android device, or on the computer; it’s just not my thing. That said, the book does have the “easy-to-read, breezy style” Arthur promised, and I learned a lot.

What I really wanted to write about, though, was my own evolution about same-sex couples getting married, based on the confirmation Baume provided, and, to a lesser extent, Arthur’s observations about a question I asked him.

If someone had asked me in 1990 whether gay people should be able to get married, my answer would have been, “Wha?” While there had been couples who had attempted matrimony even 15 years earlier, as explained by Baume, none of the gay people I knew had ever mentioned it.

Then I started hearing about a case out in Hawaii, where, in 1993, “the court ruled that while the right to privacy in the Hawaii state constitution does not include a fundamental right to same-sex marriage, denying marriage to same-sex couples constituted discrimination based on sex in violation of the right to equal protection guaranteed by the state’s constitution.” And that got me to start thinking about the issue seriously for the first time.

By then, though, some, probably most, of my gay friends noted that they OPPOSED the idea of marriage, much in the same way Baume describes the attitudes of some of his friends and allies. They believed marriage was a heterosexist hegemony that was not consistent with their lives.

And though they didn’t say so at the time, it would have required them to be “out” as a gay couple. And not just out to their friends and family, but OUT out to the whole society when that was considered risky in terms of employment, child custody, and even personal safety. Since there seemed to be no consensus on the issue, either in my circle or, as far as I could tell, nationally, I let the issue go.

Then Bill Clinton was elected, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in December 1993, which, while prohibiting “military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants,” barred “openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service.” For me, it was the worst of both worlds, DIRECTING people to live a lie, and I did not like it at all. It was finally repealed in 2011.

Worse, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (Pub.L. 104–199) was passed in September 1996, “defining marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman.” Even though no one I knew was clamoring for same-sex unions, this seemed preemptively bigoted and more than vaguely unconstitutional.

Around this time, or somewhat thereafter, there were laws passed around the country allowing for “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions.” There was a certain logic to this. Marriage, or this marriage-lite variation, as some derisively put it, may deal with issues of who’s covered under someone else’s insurance, who could visit someone in the ICU of a hospital, inheritance taxes, and the like.

There was a strategy in terms of letting other people see gay couples as “marriageish” pairs, something Baume touched on. Still, I didn’t much take to it, though I surely understood it. If I had been in that situation, I might well have opted to use the provision, which tended to vary by jurisdiction, but it seemed to be weak tea.

(It also likely generated my disdain for the term “partner” for romantic relations, a term this business librarian usually used for entrepreneurial relations.)

The year 2004 proved to be pivotal in my thinking. Baume mentions Gavin Newsom, who was mayor of San Francisco, who “gained national attention when he directed the San Francisco city–county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of the state law passed in 2000…The…weddings took place between February 12 and March 11, 2004.”

Much closer to home, I was surprised, and impressed, and delighted, and thought that he was crazy when the mayor of New Paltz, NY, my college town, did essentially the same thing.

On February 27, 2004, Mayor Jason West married 25 same-sex couples before a cheering crowd in front of the New Paltz Village Hall. Not long thereafter, the Ulster County District Attorney charged West with nineteen misdemeanors in connection with these marriages. A court later dismissed the charges against West, a ruling which the state appealed. [A judge reinstated] the charges against West, arguing that this criminal case did not concern whether the state constitution mandates same-sex marriage, but rather whether West violated his oath of office in performing illegal marriages… These were dropped by the prosecutor on July 12…A state court judge issued a permanent injunction barring West from solemnizing same-sex marriages.

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Then “same-sex marriages began in Massachusetts on May 17, 2004, as a result of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that it was unconstitutional under the Massachusetts constitution to allow only opposite-sex couples to marry.” This convergence of events moved the needle for me in terms of my support for marriage equality, not that it SHOULD happen, which I guess I had decided pretty much as a direct result of seeing the effect of DOMA, but that it COULD.

A bill supporting same-sex marriage in the New York State legislature failed in 2009, as reported by Baume, I felt a tad sad, but unsurprised by the Republican state senate. But I was watching the state legislative proceedings, on live television, when marriage equality was approved by the NYS legislature in June 2011, and I engaged in an unusual bit of fist-pumping, which I hadn’t done since Super Bowl XLII, when the New York Giants beat the previously unbeaten New England Patriots back in February 2008.

When Section 3 of DOMA was declared unconstitutional, it seemed correct, based less on the rightness of the broader same-sex marriage issue than on the unequal protection of the law that Edith Windsor was experiencing. She was slammed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate tax, whereas, if she had been married to a man who had died, she would have owed NOTHING.

The complete death of DOMA in 2015 seemed to me to be the only reasonable conclusion, lest the nation suffer a patchwork quilt of competing laws, where someone could visit their hospitalized spouse in state A but not in state B. I thought that was becoming a totally unworkable system. Maybe I was less excited by that ruling than other milestones because it just made sense, and the converse did not.

Anyway, there you have some musings based on Matt Baume’s useful book.