Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: The fog of marriage wars

It’s beginning to feel a lot like a culture war, and news from the front lines has been downright gay for those fighting for LGBT equality. The Queer Brigade has captured Ireland with minimal opposition, as almost two-thirds of voters approved same-sex marriage last weekend.

Major fighting now returns to the United States, where resistance promises to be fiercer.

The news from Ireland adds symbolic momentum to dispatches on the home-front: same-sex marriage legalized by voter referendum in Maine, Maryland and Washington, enacted legislatively in Hawaii and Illinois, and deemed inalienable by courts in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alabama and dozens of other unlikely states. As we await the high court’s ruling, now seems to be a safe time to try to digest some of the forgotten developments in same-sex marriage wars of the past two decades.

MTV and the Origins of Gay Marriage
MTV’s contribution to the debate about LGBT matrimony should not be understated, as a generation of young people were introduced to the entire concept of gay marriage during a 1994 plotline on “Real World: San Francisco.”

The “Real World” nuptials came two years before the first marriage equality court ruling (and subsequent federal Defense of Marriage Act), meaning Pedro Zamora and Sean Sasser exchanged vows before most people had any idea that such a union was, or should be, illegal.

The Bittersweet Fate of Vermont
It’s unfortunate that the state that pioneered recognition of same-sex couples in the U.S. will also be cursed by a shameful legacy of our nation’s debate over same-sex marriage. In late 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional for the state to deny gay and lesbian couples the rights of marriage—a landmark victory that offered the first signs of hope for LGBT Americans in the post-DOMA landscape.

Unwilling to allow LGBT Vermonters total victory and access to marriage, state lawmakers created the phenomenon of “civil unions” to satisfy the court’s order. Once considered a progressive, even radical, alternative to marriage, civil unions are relics of the separate-but-equal compromise LGBT Americans were expected to accept.

It’s unsurprising to hear anti-gay attitudes from reliably bigoted regions like the South, but civil unions are evidence of the creative prejudice LGBT people inspired in even the most open-minded of states.

HRC Charlatans
The year 2004 will forever be a turning point in the marriage equality narrative, as LGBT Americans endured a more intense barrage of anti-gay marriage laws than at any other time. While local organizations tried to fend off constitutional amendments in 11 states, the Human Rights Campaign contributed almost nothing to those efforts, instead channeling its resources into trying to lift John Kerry over George W. Bush in the presidential contest.

HRC failed miserably during one of the darkest hours for our movement. In fact, in the entire timeline of marriage equality, there is not a single milestone for which HRC deserves credit—although that hasn’t stopped the organization from trying to claim it.

The organization has not been involved in any of the lawsuits that have brought us to the brink of nationwide marriage equality. It has had minimal involvement in the overwhelming majority of state-level battles over this issue, and yet HRC has successfully marketed itself to the media and donors as the driving force in this civil rights battle. Shamefully, HRC’s latest disingenuous marketing trick refers to the lead plaintiff in the case before the Supreme Court, Jim Obergefell, as an “HRC member”—without noting that anyone who has contributed 5 cents or signed up for an email list qualifies as an “HRC member.”