The privilege of debating marriage equality

Courtesy of HRC

Courtesy of HRC

The same week that marriage equality is being debated in the Supreme Court, in not one but two cases, my own state of Nevada is also entering the fray — again. I say again because Nevada voters approved an amendment to our state constitution that bans same-sex marriage with a two-election process (2000, 2002). But now, as the tide seems to be shifting nationally — 53 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal — Nevada equality advocates are back with Senate Joint Resolution 13 (or SJR13).

And in all these cases, I say it’s about time.

Like the national cases, it is fair to say that Nevada LGBT rights activists are striking while the iron is hot with SJR13. Nevada’s demographics have changed a lot since the 2000/2002 election cycles. According to the Nevada Secretary of State voter registration stats, in the 2000 election cycle, there was a very thin 1,307 voter-difference between Democrats and Republicans. In 2012, Democrats out-numbered Republicans by more than 130,000 registered voters. Since support for same-sex marriage rights tends to fall along party lines… well, you can do the math.

But unlike the Supreme Court’s eventual decisions about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Prop 8 same-sex marriage ban, what happens with SJR13 is hardly the final word. (Actually, the SCOTUS decision may not be the final word, either, depending on what they decide to do.) SJR13 seeks to amend the state constitution by stripping it of the amendment that bans same-sex marriage. Any amendment to the state constitution requires a vote from the Legislature and then two consecutive votes by the people. (Hence, the votes in 2000 and again in 2002 for the ban.)

At home with my toddler today, I didn’t get a chance to attend the legislative hearing today on SJR13. But I tried to stay on top of the tweets through the #nvleg hashtag. I was heartened to see that more than one religious leader — Lutheran, Episcopal, and more — not only attended the meeting in favor of same-sex marriage rights, but spoke on the record as such. My own church, Northwest Community Church (part of the United Church of Christ), is not only openly welcoming to the LGBT community but has a gay pastor. We Christians aren’t all haters!

But all this talk about marriage rights has got me thinking about more than just what a legislator or judge says. It’s got me thinking about what we do. Who we are. And what our laws and rules and even our protests say about us as a people. What it says about our very humanity.

I was talking with a fellow activist yesterday and she said something that rings with truth: It’s not about the laws. It’s about what we do after those laws get passed.

Certainly laws reflect the times in which they were passed. It’s no wonder that when we hear about antiquated laws on the books being repealed — or used as a basis to deny a rape victim justice — that we laugh or cringe. Virgina’s “Love Shack” law, which prohibits unmarried couples from living together, may be repealed this year if their Legislature stays on track. Whew! In Missouri, it’s illegal to drive with an uncaged bear in your vehicle. Why? Just… why? And then I found out that New Mexico is the only state that has no legislation either way on same-sex marriage (!) … but plenty of time on their hands to pass laws that restrict reproductive rights. Feels like that says a lot, no?

So the laws of the land matter. But not as much as what we do with them, or about them, as the case may be.

Even still, these debates about same-sex rights are at least as revealing as the laws themselves. No matter how the religious right wants to frame it, the core of this debate is one of privilege. There are lots of different kinds of privilege and some even overlap. We talk a lot about white privilege in terms of racism. And male privilege, or patriarchy, within the women’s rights movement. But rarely do I hear those in the privileged class of marriage talk about their own privilege.

I am married. And the reason that my marriage has never been challenged is because of heterosexual privilege in our society. This is all the more obvious when I tell you that I am not heterosexual. I am bisexual. But because I am a cisgender woman and my partner is a cisgender man, no one ever questioned the legitimacy, the sanctity, or the value of our union. My love matches the hetero-normative paradigm in that our coupling is of two people of different genders. No one asked to see our heterosexual identification — like a bill in Arizona that would require people of non-conforming gender identities to “show papers” before being able to use the bathroom — before we said “I do” in 1997. And no one was concerned with our sexual orientation or the legality of our marriage when I gave birth to our child in 2010. But all these years, that has been my own (shame) badge of privilege. It’s not my fault that our society has had a bigoted history with people in same-sex relationships or those who identify in ways deemed unacceptable. But I can’t deny that I have benefited from the simple fact that the person with whom I want to share the rest of my life also happens to be a gender that makes our coupling acceptable in the eyes of society and religion. As a bisexual in a mixed gender relationship (I hate the term “opposite sex,” as if different gender identities stand in opposition to each other), I pass as heterosexual. And let’s face it, you’d be none the wiser if I never told you any different.

And this idea of privilege matters, for it is only a debate about equality for those who have privilege.

Just like I have inherited privilege with my pasty white skin color, I have enjoyed the privilege of passing as heterosexual. It does not matter if that was my intention. It only matters that it exists and that I am responsible for dismantling that privilege, while others are fighting to end the oppression it stands for.

I’ll admit, I’m not always sure how to do it. More than once, my husband and I have talked about getting a divorce, as a protest of marriage inequality (not a dissolution of our partnership). But we soon realized that kind of protest would be quickly ruined by the amount of confusion it would bring from members of our family who would worry that our relationship was over. We both agree that if we had been older when we got engaged — we are high school sweethearts who wedded in college — we probably would have not gotten married until the institution was legal for all people. But even still, that’s not enough. Ending my marriage (not my relationship) is not the same as dismantling our privilege. After all, it’s not like we’d face housing or work discrimination for living as an unwed different-sex couple (unless we lived in Virginia, apparently). The very fact that we had the options to consider — get engaged, get married, don’t get married, get divorced, etc. — is a sign of our privilege.

What I’ve come to believe is that the only way I dismantle my hetero-normative privilege is by standing and fighting with those who are fighting for an end to oppression against non-heterosexual identities. I must speak out and work from within the system of marriage privilege. I must speak out as a Christian who believes in equality for all people — because so many Christian churches have been co-opted by hate groups and fear mongering. I must work to dismantle the laws that enable oppression and maintain a status quo that allows one group of people to be privileged above another group of people.

I don’t believe in separate and unequal — not for the LGBTQ community; not for women; not for people of non-white racial and ethnic identities; not for people of different faiths (or no faith at all); not for people in different classes and income levels; not for survivors of sexual violence; not for differently abled people; not for any paradigm that stands to divide us as people and divorce us from our humanity.

Seize this moment to check your own privilege, whatever it might be, and join the fight. Because none of us are free when any one of us is oppressed.

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6 thoughts on “The privilege of debating marriage equality

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