by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
There was talk - lots of talk, actually - about when marriage equality would come to Washington state and when, if ever, an organized campaign effort would begin. In November we got those answers: 2012.
This year, Washington United for Marriage was formed, and Equal Rights Washington and a number of other coalition partners came forward to pledge that we are all going to 'go for it' in 2012.
Sen. Ed Murray and Rep. Jamie Pedersen said they would do their best to secure the votes in the House and Senate and asked LGBT Washingtonians and our allies to lobby legislatures about the importance of marriage equality in Washington state.
Then, in early December, at the Equal Rights Washington 'Toast Equality' fundraiser breakfast, panelist Thalia Zepatos of Freedom to Marry spoke about her experiences in the state-by-state fight to secure marriage equality. She mentioned, over and over again, the word 'commitment.' She also said the word 'love.' Zepatos is straight. And guess what, folks! Those are words that heterosexual Americans associate with marriage: love and commitment. Not the word 'benefit.'
I was struck at how moved I was when she spoke of commitment and love and how the beating of the benefits drum has not worked for our movement in regard to marriage for quite some time now. It does work when referring to domestic partnerships and civil unions. After all, it was the collective LGBT and straight ally community that told everyone we wanted 'everything but marriage' because of the important 'rights and protections' domestic partnerships would afford registered same-sex couples in Washington. Well, we got it. Now what? Are we going to drive everyone crazy by talking about how unequal we are and that we have our eye on some of those benefits we've yet to obtain? Or are we going to tell our stories and talk about love?
Freedom to Marry is the campaign to win marriage nationwide. Zepatos currently serves as the organization's director of public engagement. Seattle Gay News spoke with Zepatos about Freedom to Marry and the importance of communicating our stories to heterosexual people - allied or not - in regard to marriage equality.
'We work on three fronts: to win the freedom to marry in more states, to grow the national majority for marriage, and to end federal marriage discrimination,' she told SGN. 'We partner with individuals and organizations across the country to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the protections, responsibilities, and commitment that marriage brings.'
Zepatos said Washington United has 'put together an impressive coalition and hired an outstanding campaign manager.'
'As they look toward drafting and introducing a marriage bill for consideration by the Washington Legislature, coalition leaders are well aware that they key factor in securing marriage in Washington will be adequately preparing to win a high-stakes, high-dollar campaign for voter support once the Legislature takes action,' she continued. 'National opposition groups have demonstrated in state after state that they are prepared to spend millions of dollars to prevent Washington from being the seventh state to allow same sex couples to marry.'
Which brings Zepatos and my conversation to a blunt truth: money. On top of our personal stories, it will take money (and lots of it) to secure marriage equality.
'For so many LGBT people and their closest friends and relatives, the denial of benefits has been a strong message that has helped build support for domestic partnership, as well as marriage,' Zepatos pointed out.
But other Americans have deeply held beliefs about what marriage means and why it matters to them. 'For many of those well-intentioned people, talking about marriage as a collection of legal rights has two outcomes: First, it shores up the case for domestic partnership or civil unions. Second, it reinforces their concern that same-sex couples really don't 'understand,' or share, their values around marriage,' she said. 'For that reason, it's important for us to share our own values, and get to the heart of why marriage for same-sex couples is so important.'
'In order to address people's concerns about marriage for Gay couples, we must keep in mind the potential internal conflicts they will face and that such conflicts can take time and engagement to resolve,' Zepatos recommends.
'When asked what marriage means, most people immediately mention 'commitment.' The best way to connect around the freedom to marry is to show the commitment of Gay couples who are already doing the work of marriage in everyday life,' she said. 'We can demonstrate the power of commitment by telling the stories of long-term couples, by highlighting acts that show such couples taking responsibility for each other, taking care of each other, putting their partner first, taking care of their children, their elderly parents, and their community.'
'Luckily,' said Zepatos, 'there are so many stories in the community that make these very points.'
Because Gay and Lesbians are sharing their stories around the nation, and doing so by talking about love and commitment, we've made enormous progress toward changing the conversations about marriage at the federal level.
'Currently, the Respect for Marriage Act - the landmark bill that would repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) - has a record number of supporters in both the House, where the bill has 134 sponsors, and in the Senate, now with 32 sponsors, including every Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted in November to advance the Respect for Marriage Act to the full Senate,' said Zepatos.
The Obama administration is no longer defending DOMA in court, and with the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' the disparate treatment of Gay and straight members of the military will continue to raise awareness about federal relationship recognition.
'Ultimately, we must either pass the Respect for Marriage Act through Congress, or secure a positive opinion on a legal case before the Supreme Court,' Zepatos said. 'And to set the stage for either of those, we've got to demonstrate a growing climate of acceptance, by winning marriage in more states and continuing to build our majority support in public opinion nationwide.'
Zepatos maintains that the most effective engine for changing hearts and minds is when 'people, especially Gay people, engage with the people in their lives in a conversation about why marriage matters to them, personally.'
'Many Gay people assume that being out at work, at home, and in social situations is enough to convince the people they know to support LGBT issues,' she said 'But on marriage, straight people can interpret a lack of talking about an issue as a lack of urgency - or even a lack of caring. It turns out that our friends, relatives, and neighbors are waiting for the Gay and Lesbian people in their lives to bring up the subject of marriage. These kinds of conversations can be the toughest ones to have, but they are the most needed.'
To get tools for these conversations and view the messages that are winning support for marriage among conflicted voters, visit www.whymarriagematters.org.
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