What are the origins of marriage equality?

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At one of this season’s Pride events, someone posed a question regarding the origins of marriage equality as the focus of national GLBT energy and resources.

The speaker said, “Blame it on the lesbians.” He then explained that the women provided the impetus for the marriage equality movement because they had more issues with family and children. That did not ring true, and I set out to find the answer to this question.

In researching this article, I have interviewed people from across the country. The upcoming anti-marriage equality ballot initiative that will be up for referendum in November here in Tennessee puts this topic front and center.

Historical evidence pointing to same-sex unions can be found even in ancient times in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Documents indicating the presence of such couples can also be found in Europe as far back as 342 c.e. However, the push toward marriage equality as we now define it began in Copenhagen, Denmark, in October 1989 as a result of that country’s Partnership Law. At that time, 11 couples were married, including Axel and Eigil Axgil, who had lived together for nearly 40 years. Eight years into their relationship, the couple had combined their first names to create their family name, Axgil. The name change occurred in 1957, when they were in prison for gay rights activism.

In the 1970s, several couples filed lawsuits after being denied marriage licenses. While marriage was not a priority for most GLBTs at that time, the Metropolitan Community Church claimed the issue and acknowledged its importance. Otherwise, activists and GLBT organizations did not see marriage equality as a focus for movement activity.

In the United States, marriage was declared a “basic civil right” for all Americans in the 1967 United States Supreme Court ruling that overturned the laws prohibiting marriage between persons of different races. Loving v. Virginia held that the pursuit of happiness guaranteed by our Constitution included the ability to marry a person chosen freely by each American citizen.

Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a Minnesota couple applied for a marriage license. After being refused the license, Jack Baker and Mike McConnell unsuccessfully filed suit in their home state’s Supreme Court. Elsewhere in that same year, Donna Berkett and Manonia Evans sued for the right to marry in Wisconsin. That case did not go to trial. John Singer and Paul Barwick also fruitlessly attempted to get married in Seattle, Wash. Their lawsuit resulted in a clear defeat with a ruling standing firm against marriage equality.

“The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the book of Genesis,” opined the Washington court.

1971 also saw the passage of the first DOMA (so-called Defense of Marriage Act) in the state of Maryland. Throughout the decade of the 1970s, there were numerous attempts on the part of same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses in various states including Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Illinois and others. The lawsuits arising from these attempts to gain marriage licenses percolated up from the grassroots, from the GLBT people themselves. Male couples were the overwhelming majority of these cases.

The next decade saw the right to marry affirmed for immigrants and prisoners in the United States, giving them this basic civil right denied to GLBT citizens.

“Since 1971, dozens of GLBT couples have sued over the freedom to marry,” said Sean Cahill, Director of the Task Force’s Policy Institute and author of “Same-Sex Marriage in the United States” (2004) and co-author with Sarah Tobias of “No Child Left Behind?” (2003).“National groups were initially reluctant to tackle marriage equality, and the GLBT legal groups tried to talk couples out of taking their cases to court,” Cahill continued. “However, the Christian right’s deployment of marriage equality as a wedge issue smoke-and-mirrors cover for their agenda.”

Fast forward to the year 1993 in the state of Hawaii, where that states’ Supreme Court ruled that the ban on sex discrimination prohibited denial of marriage equality to same-sex couples.

Following closely behind that decision was a 1996 ruling by a Hawaiian trial court, which affirmed same-sex marriage rights. A referendum codifying marriage inequality in Hawaii came before the Supreme Court justices had a chance to interpret the lower court’s ruling. The couple at issue in this high profile case involved a lesbian couple, Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel. Perhaps that is the source of the “blame it on the lesbians” remark.

Toward the end of the 1990s, Alaska amended their Constitution with an anti-equality clause. It was during this time that the issue arose in Vermont. Though, in 1999, Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality legislation, it failed to spell out couples’ right to a marriage license. In 2000, the Vermont legislature passed their civil unions statute, signed into law by then-governor Howard Dean.

Massachusetts’s cases then emerged at the front lines in the battle for marriage equality. Efforts in various other states to either pass marriage equality statutes or fend off attempts by right-wing groups to push one man/one woman marriage as the only legal marriage are now an integral part of the struggle for GLBT civil rights across the nation. The most extreme form involves amending state constitutions to forever ban all forms of unity between GLBT couples including civil unions and domestic partnerships.

As we move closer to the November 7 election, the referendum to instill hatred into the Tennessee State Constitution becomes priority one for many in the statewide GLBT community along with their supportive friends. Coalitions now forming hope to counter the efforts of the right wing radicals’ proposal to alter our Constitution and reduce civil rights for Tennessee citizens for the first time in the history of our state.

Visit the campaign online at www.votenoon1tn.com or call (615) 321-8467.