Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ithaca's Protest for Marriage Equality

I just returned from the protest I mentioned yesterday -- Ithaca, New York's version of today's national protests against California's proposition eight, and for equal marriage rights for all citizens, straight and gay.

It went well, I think. There was a very good turnout -- more than a hundred, easily (I was up near the front, and couldn't easily see the whole crowd). This was impressive given the weather here: most of today has seen a heavy November rain, although it let-up for (most but not all) of the rally itself. (I was planning to bring a camera, but the rain dissuaded me; if I find any links to others' photos, though, I'll link. Update: here's a photo I swiped from the Facebook page for the event. (I'm in the second row, behind the woman with the "you can't amend love" sign.) More photos at the link.)

There were more than a half a dozen speakers -- three members of the "Ithaca 50", 25 local couples who sued (unsuccessfully) for marriage rights here; two of the organizers (one of whom identified as a Catholic "straight ally" with a gay father and transgendered cousin, and spoke movingly of her wish that her church support marriage rights); a local Tompkins County board member; two who read other people's testimony from the net... and maybe another one or two I forgot. We had the (apparently) nation-wide moment of silence at 2:00; lots of people waved signs. The sign I brought (pdf link) said "equality for all families", with little icons of three couples -- one straight, one gay, one lesbian.

Unusually for these events, I didn't strongly disagree with anything any of the speakers said; I wouldn't myself have waved all of the signs there, but most of them seemed reasonable. There was a pretty good avoidance of issue-drift -- a problem that some people have with left-sided protests in general -- in the speeches and the signs; and a strong appeal at the beginning for tolerance within the movement, and peacefulness and non-violence in protest. The strongest speakers -- unsurprisingly -- were the three members of the Ithaca 50: having a personal connection to an issue always adds a lot to a speech regardless of its content, and all three speeches were moving.

The one thing I would have liked to see was a greater focus on marriage equality in New York state. (It was mentioned a lot, but not focused on.) While the march was motivated by the defeat in California, it was about the issue generally; and New York is where we live. Also, as it happens, New York is arguably the new central front in this struggle: after the highest court here kicked the issue back to the rest of the state government, the state house passed an equal marriage rights bill, and the Governor said he'd sign it; the hold-up was the state legislature. Well, last week Democrats got a majority in the NY state senate for the first time in more than four decades (although not, alas, by defeating any of the anti-gay legislatures who represented this area). So, in theory, New York state should now pass -- in both houses -- equal marriage rights, and the Governor should sign it.* So I would I have liked more focus -- rhetorical and practical -- on trying to make that happen.

But a good protest.

I must admit these events bring out the cynic in me. Left-wing rallies have a very ritualistic feel to them, and it's not a ritual I always find easy to take very seriously, however much I support the cause. Additionally, I wonder about their efficacy in recent years (as opposed to in the 60's, say) -- the anti-war rallies in 2003 were IMS the largest in history, and had no visible impact whatsoever. I think that as a practical matter new strategies need to be devised -- and as a cultural matter, much of the feel of such events is silly. When one of the speakers started a chant about "the power of the people", I found my cynicism making out: wasn't it the power of the people that just voted against us? Isn't this -- alas -- a matter of justice in the face of popular opposition to it? I think the cause is just, and that we will, thanks to good demographics as well as changing minds, have a majority on the side of equality before long. But chants about power to the people felt like a really silly piece of misplaced 60's nostalgia (changed, ironically enough, by a 22-year-old who might have well been my student, since I taught at Cornell while he was there). And it's hard to get around the feel that these events are a ritual which always bring out the usual suspects, particularly in a town like Ithaca...

On the other hand, my wife recognized someone she knew, a law student at Cornell, who said it was her first protest -- ever, on anything; she'd come to support a friend of hers. And Ithaca being a small, liberal town that is practically a physical instantiation of silly misplaced 60's nostalgia, it probably isn't a good place to see the efficacy or importance of such events even if there was lots of it in the other marches today.

And, in the end, none of this matters: it's an important issue, an issue of justice and equality, and I think that going there was worthy, an act of political speech that has moral worth in and of itself, apart from the issue of efficacy or my cynicism about the culture of these things.

So I'm glad I went.

Now let's start pressuring New York to be third** after Massachusetts and Connecticut -- and the first state to establish equal marriage rights legislatively rather than through the courts. That'd be a landmark worth achieving.

And, of course, it's the right thing to do.

* Yeah, we have a new Governor since then, but he's said he'll sign the bill if it's passed.

** Alas, since it should have been fourth, had California done the right thing...


Anonymous said...

While I didn't see this protest, the gay community would be wise to consider the image it produces. The fact is most straight voters know about the gay community what it portrays. The gay community is well represented in media, and therefore has great control over its own image.

Unfortunately, the image it does portray through television, protests and "pride" parades can be quite negative. Indeed border-line violent, hateful, anti-christian protests do not help their cause. Storming into churches does not help their cause. It only reinforces the belief of some religious people that what gay marriage is really about is an assault on their values. What does a "pride" parade displaying not values of family minded gay citizens, but sexual degenerates (this characterization would apply equally to straights engaged in some of the behaviors often displayed) communicate? Now, is this all that such parades are about, I couldn't say. I certainly hope they are not, but whether these are or are not is not relevant. What is relevant is that the image transmitted is just that.

While there are surely a few bigots out there, no amount of protests, parades, or anything else will change that. Do not concern yourself with them, they are a tiny majority. Concern yourself instead with the image portrayed. Don't engage in trying to paint all who oppose you as evil hate mongers. They are not. Indeed, religious people entirely against homosexuality, for the most part, don't hate you, or wish you ill will.

Please, don't try to demonize those who disagree with you. However much their disagreement hurts, or even feels like hate, telling them it is hate, when it is not hate will not help.

Indeed, you will grow the very hate you accuse them of.

While I disagree with you, I wish you good luck. Have faith, if you're right and I'm wrong, and the gay community can avoid the kind of hate recently displayed, the country, and I will come around.

Stephen said...


This comment is so divorced from the protest I went to, to say nothing of what I wrote about it, that I am lead to wonder if you are simply leaving this on every blog you can find.

This wasn't a gay pride parade; it was a demonstration about equality in marriage rights. What I said in my post is that it reminded me a bit too much of standard-issue left-wing protests... but that it was nicely focused on the issue at hand and that the speakers were quite reasonable.

Finally, I personally quite doubt the idea that the gay community is known to the straight community largely through the media. I think increasingly straight voters know gays and lesbians in their lives -- family, friends, colleagues.

Anyway, I welcome disagreement with what I wrote, but please give some signs that you read what I wrote, okay?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to leave you with that impression. Let me clarify my point a bit:

I read what you had to say but wasn't in town to see the protest. For that reason, as a member of the community you were righting about, I was commenting in the abstract.

Your point about people knowing gays and lesbians, is of course true. But there is an important distinction between knowing people of a group and one's impression of the group as a whole. My assertion is merely that most straight people don't, and without conscious effort can't know more about the gay community then that community portrays. Merely knowing a few members of a group would not give someone a rational basis to make any kind of generalization [positive or negative] about the group.

I did read what you said, however, having not been there, I don't have much of a frame of reference to agree or disagree with much about it. From the understanding I got from a friend, who was not a participant but saw some of the protest, none of the behaviors I am alluding to were occurring. If I was unclear about this in my post, I apologize. In fact I assure you, if that was my impression, I wouldn't take the time to make a comment.

I comment because I am deeply saddened by recent events. I see my own religious beliefs under attack, not by the idea of gay marriage, but by borderline violent and unquestionably hateful protests. On the other side, I see good friends feeling persecuted.

The plea I make to both sides, is to assure that hate has no place in this debate. Yes, I disagree with you, I am for the bans. However, this has nothing to do with animosity towards gays, or the gay community. My reasons are mostly socio-economic. I'm not offering them, because that is not the point of my post. Further, I respect your opinion and recognize that reasonable people can have the opposite view.

So why did I comment do you ask? As part of the Ithaca community, I am on a couple of email lists where I regularly hear of community actions for a variety of causes, some I agree with, some I don't. Regarding this cause, I received several, and while I am sure from the tone of your article, they had little to do with you, nonetheless some of this hate expressed in other communities was starting to creep in.

My apologies if you were offended. Please, if you wish to debate things, refrain from asserting someone commenting on your blog didn't read it. I suppose that happens, but instead respond to the points. If you are right, which I grant you may well be, this will win. After all, as you correctly point out, more and more members of the straight community are realizing how many friends and family members they have who are homosexuals. If you're right, you will eventually win.

Debate is much more effective then yelling or signs ever will be. Protests are only effective if they encourage debate.

Stephen said...


First, I apologize for suggesting you might not have read the post. Frankly, I've gotten comment spam before which seems linked to key words in what I write. I'm sorry for misjudging this comment, and now that I know that I'm dealing with a person who's actually reading, I apologize.

As to your religious beliefs: I should mention that there was a very specific plea at the beginning for tolerance, for not scapegoating any particular opponents, and so forth.

If you read this blog you know that I value debate highly, and that I believe in rational persuasion. I don't read the email lists you refer to -- I heard of the protest from the national site, and followed the link to find out there was one here -- but feel strongly that everyone should feel equal and welcomed and safe here in Ithaca. Indeed, that was a major theme of the protest: to make sure our gay and lesbian neighbors feel that way too, by ensuring them full equal, civil rights (as they are entitled to).

The issue of whether people can oppose gay marriage out of good will is a tricky one. I myself prefer to speak of the issue as one of justice and injustice, discrimination and equality, because I think the slogans about "hate" attribute motives where we can't know them, and in way that aren't useful anyway. But I understand those who feel differently, since issues of justice and equality are so basic to people's identity.

Here's what I wrote about the issue in a comment thread on another blog:

"I think the question of motivation here is ultimately a red herring -- which is to say, it's an interesting academic question (and I say that as someone who loves academic questions), but it's also academic in the prejudicial sense, i.e. irrelevant for practical purposes.

The result of Prop 8 is discrimination. (And while I understand, at least in part, Russell's attempt to draw the distinction/discrimination line, I think that line is utterly untenable in practice in contemporary life (and actually probably untenable even in theory, I would say.)) In the end, a vote is not a communicative, but rather a political, act -- and the political effect of this vote was to restore gays and lesbians to a second-class citizenship, separate and unequal in rights.

Prop 8 supporters may well not hate, may even love, gays and lesbians -- I can't read minds, and neither can anyone else. And they may believe that gays and lesbians should receive equal treatments while reserving marriage for straights. But they can't vote that way, since the vote establishes inequality.

Whether or not there is hate in their hearts, there is discrimination in their votes. Which, I claim, is ultimately the point."

I hope this explains my position a bit. Thank you for reading, and for commenting.

Stephen Frug

Anonymous said...

Looking at the question as whether there is discrimination is a convenient way to frame the issue for your position, however it has little to do with practice in other areas of society.

Every government privilege (which is all that government recognition of marriage is) discriminates. E.g., Social Security discriminates on age, driving privileges discriminate against underage persons, welfare legislation discriminates against those with a certain amount of income, indeed remedies for past discrimination i.e. affirmative action themselves discriminate. The question is do the reasons for the discrimination justify it.

So, like it or not, motivation DOES matter. For instance, the Supreme Court's problem with the Colorado amendment at issue in Lawrence was the intention (discrimination out of animosity).

Most proponents of bans on gay marriage do not support those bans out of animosity. I say this as a representative of the very community pushing for the bans.

In my particular case, my reasons have to do with marriage as an institution for the raising of children. While yes, all married straights don't have children, most do. Indeed, additional tax incentives are in place to encourage that.

While the social science data from unbiased sources is inconclusive (of course both sides have plenty of "data" that gays either can't or can raise children as well), there is plenty of evidence that as a general rule, children raised in straight marriages tend to do better than those who are not. One question is whether, given this purpose, there is justification for giving the benefit to couples which can't meet the purpose of having the benefit.

Of course there is the issue of "why does my marriage effect yours" which in essence claims that recognizing gay marriage has no effect on the above purpose and therefore eliminating the inequality (assuming you accept such an inequality exists) supports eliminating the bans. In response to this, I would encourage you to look at the straight marriage and birth rates in countries which do recognize gay marriage (especially if adjusted to not count isolated immigrant communities which don't recognize such marriages).

Given the importance of maintaining adequate birth rates (e.g., who will pay for social security?), and the above mentioned child rearing benefits, one should at least consider if there is a causal connection. The choice of policy should be economically rational, therefore the causal connection is important, while the reasons for such connection are not.

While I would like to think that the problem is as simple as you paint it, it is not. Every vote, for every policy choses winners and losers. Indeed gays and lesbians are free to engage in heterosexual marriages.

One could even argue that the legislation does not discriminate against gays as a class, but does not recognize a particular institution. This is similar to the right to engage in homosexual sodomy recognized by the Supreme Court. It does not discriminate against straights. I have the right to engage in homosexual sodomy as well. The fact that I choose not to (or am genetically predisposed not to) is irrelevant. This is problematic depending on the purpose of the institution. If the purpose of the institution is to give you a sense of well-being, perhaps this is more problematic. If the purpose is effective child rearing by biological mothers and fathers, than there is no reason to recognize homosexual marriages. Indeed, in regards to the purposes of the benefit, homosexuals are in no worse position than they would be with the right to marry.

I know that saying its wrong because its discrimination is satisfying, but its a highly conclusory argument.

Stephen said...


I have a limited amount of time to go through this, but, in brief:

To say that all government privileges discriminate is true only in an extremely tendentious sense; that is not the common use of the word "discriminate".

To the degree that motivation is taken into account, the only motives here are either animosity, or religious disapproval, which is an equally bad motive from a secular democratic point of view. This isn't just my conclusion, but is the conclusion of pratically every court to ever look at this question, whether they ultimately accepted a "separate but equal" solution (e.g. Vermont), mandated equal marriage rights (Connecticut & Massachusetts) or mandated marriage rights but were overturned by popular referendum (Hawaii & California).

The argument about children is totally moot: it is simply not the case that in our current social or legal system marriage is solely for the point of raising children. Not only childless couples, but couples unable to have children (due to age or infertility) are able to marry. This is why this excuse has been rejected by courts: it simply doesn't fit how the institution really exists in our society.

The data on how children are best raised is only ambiguous to those on the side of discrimination, seeing the issue through the lenses of (perhaps unconscious) animosity or religious bias. Children do just as well raised in gay or lesbian families as they do in straight families.

Further, even if this was true it wouldn't be an argument against gay marriage. If it had been the case that the children of racially mixed marriages were in some sense less well off than children of marriages from single-raced couples, this would not have been an argument for preventing intermarriages. For that matter, we don't outlaw -- nor should we -- single parents raising children, whatever the statistics.

Finally, the point about birthrates is silly, since no country has legalized equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians long enough for that to be a factor -- nor is there any sensible suggestion of a mechanism to argue that there is causation behind this correlation, even if the timing worked, which it doesn't. It is simply the fact that it does straight couples no harm if gay and lesbian couples marry -- save the harm to those who wish to see their religious beliefs imposed upon others, or those who wish to see their sense of gay and lesbian inferiority writ into law, not concerns that are or should be taken seriously.

These arguments, weak tea as they are, are generally attempts to legitimize feelings based on either animus or religious bias. Even if this is not true in your case -- and I accept your word that it is not, and would remind you that it is you not I who insist that the issue of motivation is relevant -- it is true in so few cases that the non-discriminatory position would be a no-brainer were the others removed. Barry Goldwater may have been (as many think he was) sincere in voting against the Civil Rights Act on federalist rather than racist grounds, but the number of people who would have opposed that act absent racism in this country is utterly negligible. And regardless of his motivation, Goldwater's position won him votes because of the racism in his supporters.

Your point about "sodomy", besides being entirely off-topic (and raising once again the fact that it is gay-marriage opponents, and not defenders, who are obsessed with the issue of gay sex), is also wrong: some of the statues struck down in Lawrence prohibited straight sodomy as well.

The suggestion that gays and lesbians could engage in straight marriages is utterly fatuous, precisely comparable to the notion (prevalent in the country prior to 1967) that anti-miscegenation laws didn't discriminate because blacks could marry other blacks, and whites other whites.

Gays and lesbians families are, now, raising children together in every state of this country. This is not at issue. And childless gays and lesbian couples wish to marry for all the same reasons that childless straight couples get married. The only question is whether or not we, as a society, will treat them equally or not.

Rather than being a comfortable fiction for my position, discrimination is, like it or not, a simple description of the position you are committed to -- and which, alas, 52% of the Californian public just voted into their constitution. Attempts to work around this are tendentious and facile.

If one wants not to support a position of legalized second-class citizenship, the only possible position is to support equal marriage rights for gays, lesbians and straights.


PS: If you're going to continue this discussion, please sign your name to it; I feel silly addressing you as "anonymous".

Anonymous said...

Ha! my mistake I meant to say Romer v. Evans! Though since I stepped in it (the problem with commenting over lunch) I'll address some of the Lawrence issues as well.

In Lawrence, and its application to cases where the statutes facially prohibit homosexual acts, you are missing an important point. (though one that kind of argues for the gay marriage position) In those future applications, the question has been how the statutes were applied. (Lawrence's final meaning is an open question if I'm not mistaken?)

Regardless, your citation of nearly every court that's looked at the issue presumes a kind of legal positivism and belief in the courts that is not supported by its own mere assertion.

Judges throughout history, have made some pretty horrific decisions. Indeed, some legal philosophers pointed to Germany's extreme positivist position as a contributing cause to the ability of the Nazi's to seize and maintain power. (read Fuller's response to Hart. . . . off subject, but great reading!)

These decisions suffer a major problem, and I would list them as decisions that simply should not be followed. Simply put, the constitution provides no such right. Repeatedly saying so is a large part of why the population has passed so many state constitutional amendments rejecting this reading in the marriage context.

Indeed, if I was you, I'd be careful what I wished for. Your original hope expressed in your blog about a legislative solution is the way to go. We do live in a constitutional republic. There are mechanisms to cure the type of judicial activism being engaged in here. No matter how many times the, rather intellectually stagnant, profession of law asserts the constitution simply says many things it doesn't, the populace doesn't agree. If instead of trying to force your views through the countermajoritarian court system you win legislatively or even constitutionally, you will find the country will support you. Force it through a court system viewed as suspect by most of the population (yes, liberals love it. . . . most people, don't) and the likely result will be a FEDERAL constitutional amendment. I'm sure you realize that the states which have managed to come close on winning this issue in popular votes are not enough to block such an amendment.

Regarding your criticism of Goldwater, its irrelevant. We should applaud the man for standing on his principles. Should we fault those who fought segregation in this country because the Soviets saw segregation as a way to weaken America and eliminate democracy here? Should we condemn everyone who's against the torture of AlQuada members because terrorists also happen to be against torturing terrorists? Of course not.

Take your position for another example, I applaud you for standing on your principles. However, a number of people with the same view support this sort of thing to try to push Christianity out of the public square. Something, that I feel largely comes out of animosity, again I point to the hate shown in the last week elsewhere in the country. However, it would be wrong of me, simply because you share their belief about result, to assign you any of the condemnation they deserve for their motivations.

Regarding my reasons, I don't have the time to further articulate them, and doubt you would be convinced. I do see correlation,I assure you this is not based on lack of information, and again I would point you to Europe. But nonetheless, from here, I'll assume arguendo you are correct on every point you made.

Finally, I must comment on your comment about "secular" democracy. You throw this term out, as if the meaning you seem to subscribe to it is a foregone conclusion. To spite what the teaching profession may tell you (a profession with a peculiarly one-sided political view), this country has always looked to religion for moral guidance. Again, this is not just my view, but the view of a great deal of the population. Hence, when you make this a purely get religous views out of the public square kind of point, you again may end up getting a worse situation for your victory.

Stick with democracy. Avoid trying to paint your opponents (whether in the open, or with the implication followed by a caveat that you take them at their word) as bigots. Be right. Be reasoned. Appeal to the tolerance that the very faiths you seem to have a problem with value.

Do these things, you'll be married one day (though as a commitment-phobic straight male . . . I'm not sure if I should congratulate this result). Fail to do these things, and a backlash is likely. Especially considering the largely catholic immigrant population which may get a pathway to citizenship in the next few years.

Best wishes, even if you really think I'm a bigot.

Stephen said...

Dear Anonymous [again, I really wish you'd sign a name],

You misunderstood me, which I think was my fault. I wasn't arguing that there were no good arguments apart from ones based in religion or bigotry because courts had said so. I know just as well as you do that there have been plenty of odious decisions by courts, although I suspect we wouldn't agree on which precisely to number among them (I'd include Bowers v Hardwick, for instance). I think the case is and should be on the merits. I was appealing to the courts mostly to show I wasn't the only one who had come to this conclusion, and also, partly, as a shorthand to avoid having to go through an oft-made argument.

Mostly, I think the case for gay marriage clearly stands on its own merits. I would prefer, all things being equal, a legislative enactment of it -- although I think that judicial rulings in its favor are perfectly valid regardless of public opinion on them and in no sense represent any particular form of judicial "activism" -- any more than Loving v. Virginia did, despite its being decided against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the populace at the time. (The basic argument for counter-majoritarian rulings I would make is Tocqueville's.)

Nor am I particularly concerned about backlash to court opinions -- as Scott Lemieux has argued frequently, this is largely unsubstantiated. (At the moment we seem to be witnessing a distinct backlash to a popular vote.) The odds of a federal amendment are close to nil, given the difficulty of passing such. And I read the demographic trends differently than you; younger voters support equal marriage rights for gay and lesbians substantially, and I think ultimately we will win on those grounds if not others.

I don't think that I paint my opponents as bigots, although certainly many of those who support my side do. I do think my opponents on this issue are supporting bigotry, but that's not the same thing. In your case, I don't think you are a bigot -- how could I? I don't even know who you are! If I had to guess, I'd guess that religious motives are influencing your view of the matter -- but I really don't know. And, as I argued above, I don't think it matters much. (I think religious motives are perfectly fine -- I don't think I'm biased against them, although I do disagree with them -- but I do think they have no place being written into secular, civil law.) I do appreciate your willingness to discuss the matter calmly.

Finally, regarding your thought that I might "be married one day": I am married (as I mention in my opening bio.) I am not interested in equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians because they would benefit me personally (although certainly they would in the indirect sense that they would benefit dear friends of mine). I am interested in it, and have been for many years, largely out of an abstract concern for justice.

I offer you my best wishes as well, and hope you continue to read, disagree with me though you might.