Supporters of GLBTQ Awareness Days sport T-shirts that read, "gay? fine by me."
Liz Bradbury, a gay rights activist who has been with her partner, Trish Sullivan, for 16 years, believes that she will see same-sex marriage legally recognized in her lifetime.
“Trish and I will go to Massachusetts to get married on May 17,” Bradbury says. “The marriage may not be immediately recognized in Pennsylvania, but I believe that the full faith and credit clause of the federal constitution will ultimately recognize our marriage.”
Bradbury and Sullivan spoke recently on a panel discussion on same-sex marriage, with Elizabeth Vann, assistant professor of anthropology; Brian Pinaire, assistant professor of political science; and Ben Wright, a professor of religion studies. The same-sex marriage panel discussion was part of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (GLBTQ) Awareness Days which also included a t-shirt campaign, a GLBTQ and Spirituality discussion, and various other activities.
The same-sex marriage discussion provided a forum for participants to detail distinctions between civil unions and civil marriages, sound off on the Defense of Marriage act, and blast President Bush for his position on gay marriage.
An anthropological perspective
President Bush has taken the position that the union between a man and a woman is the only proper form of marriage and that it is “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.”
Vann, who discussed the history of marriage and relationships, said: “The president’s view on marriage is based on the assumption that monogamous, heterosexual marriage is and always has been a fundamental institution of human societies everywhere. This assumption and therefore Bush’s claims about human marriage are patently false.”
Vann also noted that human marriage practices across time and cultures have encompassed an incredible amount of diversity.
“There are a number of human marriage practices that do not conform to the monogamous, heterosexual form that President Bush believes all humans share,” Vann said. “The historical and cross-cultural range of different marriages all serve to support and perpetuate viable and healthy societies. Among these marriage traditions are same-sex marriage practiced by a large percentage of Native American groups and in societies across East and West Africa.”
In this view, Vann has support from the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, which recently issued a statement outlining their opposition to a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.
The role of religion
Wright offered a historical perspective on marriage in the eyes of the church. “We all live in a world,” said Wright, “in which we think love is central to marriages and where every organized religion has restraints on human sexual behavior. Many of those regulations are based on sacred texts.”
“In the contemporary world, we often get the perception from the media that all Christians read the Bible the same way. The fact is that many Christians interpret the Bible in different ways. There is a range of differing approaches, and thus Christians exhibit a range of different attitudes toward the issue of same-sex marriage.”
While many who oppose same-sex marriage base their objections on religious grounds, Sullivan, Bradbury’s partner and a gay rights activist, said that religion has no part in the issue.
“This is a discussion about civil marriage,” she said. “In the United States, there is no requirement for heterosexual couples to have religious marriages. There are no requirements and no expectancies that any religions marry gay or lesbian couples. We are talking about civil marriage and the federal rights that go with it.”
“We are not fighting for a religious blessing to get married,” said Gene Kelly, GLBTQ coordinator for Lehigh’s Multicultural Affairs department. “We are fighting for the 1,138 federal benefits that we do not get with a civil union, but would get with a civil marriage.”
Civil unions vs. civil marriages
According to Bradbury, there is a stark difference between civil unions and civil marriages.
Bradbury and Sullivan were married in a civil union ceremony in Vermont in 2000. Their civil union only grants them about 400 rights granted by the state of Vermont. Because they live in Pennsylvania, which does not recognize their civil union, they have no rights as a couple.
Civil marriage grants couples federal rights, such as Social Security, immigration and IRS benefits, through Article 4 of the federal constitution, which requires all states to extend full faith and credit to the public acts and judicial proceedings and records of other states. This is the main reason gay couples are not satisfied with civil unions, which only grant rights in the state in which the ceremony takes place.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and also gives states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states. The Defense of Marriage Act, which has been replicated by 38 states, is now viewed by some as insufficient to protect the institution of marriage and has led opponents to propose the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Pinaire said many in the legal community believe the Defense of Marriage Act sufficiently protects the institution of marriage. If a state views a particular public act, such as same-sex marriage, as offensive to its public policies, that state is not required to recognize that particular act.
Pinaire also shared his personal views. “Let’s get serious about this. If you really want to strengthen the institution of marriage, eliminate no-fault law divorces and make adultery a federal crime,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can do to protect existing marriage rather than wall off the institution so as not to allow the people who really care a great deal about each other and want to enter into that much cherished institution.”