Last week I was eagerly anticipating the gay marriage arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court. I even bought this shirt because I’m a big nerd who could listen to Nina Totenberg on NPR recount Supreme Court arguments all day long and I’m a big fan of justice. But when I went to check my news feed, I saw the news of the domestic violence arrests of engaged WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson instead.
I know that abuse happens at the same rate in same-sex relationships as it does in opposite-sex ones, but some folks are thrown off by this. The media had a hard time figuring out how to talk about it. ESPN reporters published their email chain debating how to cover it: How could they report on this in a way that holds the abusive partner accountable and calls for the WNBA to treat this as seriously as other sports leagues have recently promised to do, without feeding into the myth that women are just as abusive as men? Yeah, they didn’t come up with an answer either.
Here’s the thing—power and domination over others is a part of our culture and it rears its ugly head in a lot of different places. We are seeing it in the police brutality in Baltimore and around the country, in the wage gap between races and genders, and in the anti-LGBT backlash to marriage equality. With all this institutional violence it’s no wonder we see abuse in personal relationships as well. Straight or gay, it happens. Not exactly the kind of equality I was hoping for, but one we must recognize and address.
Striving to improve personal behavior is not the only work to be done to end violence in relationships. We have to work on institutional violence as well.
Some news stories that caught our eye this week:
A new ad in India cleverly attempts to show men how creepy and gross they are when they harass women on the street.
Last week it made national news when local students protested when their vice-principal was fired for getting married. Today, the vice principal speaks publically and we learn that the school actually asked him to divorce his husband in order to keep his job.
We celebrated as marriage equality came to Utah this week! The New York Times coverage reminded us of one of the fundamental rights that marriage brings: “Amy Wilson, who is seven months pregnant, spent much of the night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. Her daughter is due in February, and Ms. Wilson said that a marriage license would mean she and her partner…would both be recognized as the child’s parents, each of their names listed on her birth certificate. Without the license, they have been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure both women are legal guardians.”
Perhaps in this age of increasing support for gay rights, marriage equality laws, and the oh-so-popular Ellen, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a need for this day anymore.
But it is needed.
We talk a lot about community and relationships here, on this blog and in the work we do throughout the state. Part of what makes a relationship healthy is integrity, right? If you’re not able to be your full, honest self due to safety concerns or worries about being cast out of your community, what kind of relationship is that? Not much of one, in my book.
Being out actually relates quite intimately to domestic violence. Abusers will often use sexuality and gender identity against their partners and threaten to out them to their families or employers. This is particularly the case for trans women and men: someone who has transitioned may not have told their employers about their past (partly because it’s really none of their business, but also because they may be fired because of it). Additionally, abusers may use their partner’s identity as a way to belittle and humiliate them (“you’re not a ‘real’ woman, no one else would ever want you” or “I know you’ll just leave me for a man”).
When you consider the disproportionately higher rate of unemployment AND higher rates of domestic violence (and all other forms of violence) for trans folks, particularly trans women (and even more particularly, trans women of color), you can see how this would make someone feel trapped in an abusive relationship.
Although the reality is that some people need to remain closeted for their own safety, coming out is still a powerful, vulnerable, and important act. Coming out helps put a human face on issues like homophobia and transphobia. Coming out helps create a domino effect, allowing more and more people to be an integrated, authentic part of their communities.
“Hey mom, I’ll be voting in the next presidential election!”
I had to stop and think about that for a second. Besides my initial reaction of “oh my god, you will be an adult in four short years,” this was an exciting moment. Look around you, if you have any 14-year-olds in your life, imagine them voting in 2016. What do you want them to know about the political process? I want my teenagers to engage politicians and tell them what they think. This is part of their political capital.
I asked my daughters if they knew who their representatives were. They knew Senators Murray and Cantwell but not Representative Jim McDermott. That’s more than I knew when I was 14—I wasn’t even thinking about voting. Young voters are a powerful bloc, but only if we encourage them to vote.
I can think of a couple of practical ways to do this. Take them to one of the many lobby days in Olympia. Walking around the capitol and talking directly to politicians demystifies the political process. Encourage the 14-year-olds you know to send an email asking their representative about an issue that’s important to them. And, just plain old conversation: talking around the dinner table, in the car, or on the bus. In our family, we just talked about healthcare issues that are important for women, marriage equality, legalizing marijuana, charter schools, and the presidential candidates. These conversations are lively and I always learn something new about how my kids look at the world.
They told us in law school that we the people drive how laws are shaped. For some of us, this notion does not feel real, and so we distance ourselves from political debates on things like violence against women and marriage equality. But these aren’t just political issues. They are connected to our everyday life and to each other.
I was talking to a family member about how frustrating it is that my mother is pressuring me to marry an Indian man. After a lengthy conversation, her response in ‘my support’ was that she doesn’t care who her daughter marries, as long as she marries a man. Later she said she would accept and love me even if I were single or gay. I would have thought that was a very progressive thing to say―about a decade ago―and would have probably said something similar myself. Now I see the sexism, racism, and homophobia in this snippet.
I am very clear that it is through conversations with friends and family that we can make a difference. Even when it doesn’t seem like I am getting through to them, I keep the conversations going. I tell my family that although I know that my getting married is important to them, I am not willing to do it any cost. I tell them about all of my friends: single, married, gay, straight. I refuse to choose one segment of my life over another. And the more of us who keep having these honest conversations, the more change we’ll see in the national dialogue as well.
President Obama is finally out of the closet. Last week, after years of dropping hints, he became the first president to declare his belief that “same sex couples should be able to get married.” New clarity and leadership is especially welcome as North Carolina becomes the thirtieth state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning marriage between same sex partners. So it seems like a good time for a refresher on why gay marriage matters (not just for gays!), and why Washingtonians should be paying attention.
- For better or worse (get it?), marriage is a really important civil and cultural institution. Denying GLBT people access to the civil right to marry cuts deeper than the rights themselves. It communicates that GLBT people are not equally valued or protected by law. And that makes us more vulnerable to violence at home and on the street.
- The anti-gay agenda is not just anti-gay. In North Carolina and 19 other states, the marriage amendment not only bans same sex marriage, but any type of civil union that is not marriage. Among other lost benefits, domestic violence and stalking protections may no longer apply to unmarried partners, gay or straight. When Ohio passed a similar amendment, courts denied domestic violence protections to survivors for two years until the state Supreme Court settled the issue.
- We’re all being played. Strategy memos from the National Organization for Marriage don’t mince words: “The strategic goal…is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies.” This isn’t just about defeating gay marriage; it is about using homophobia and racism to keep people divided from each other and politically weak.
Marriage equality is likely to be on the ballot in Washington State this November. We have the chance to be the first state to defend marriage equality by popular vote. I’m ready for us to make history.
Valentine’s Day takes new meaning for me as I celebrate it with my second-grade son and his classmates. What are we really celebrating during this super-commercial holiday? Romance, or love? By whose definition? Who’s included and who’s left out on this day? And what do I want my son to learn about both romance and love?
Thinking about these questions in the context of the past few weeks, which brought the Komen kerfuffle, the joy of marriage equality, and the horror of Charlie and Braden’s deaths, inspired me to imagine what I hope my son and his classmates will experience in their lives:
- You can marry who you want. Or don’t get married. It’s up to you!
- You get to choose whether to have kids, and how many.
- You’re gonna learn skills for having great, healthy relationships―both at school and from all the adults in your life.
- Your government, the child welfare system, and your community will give everyone in your family really good help during times of trouble.
- Your family matters, whatever it looks like.
Happy Valentine’s Day, son. Mommy loves you!
Last month, I celebrated along with 53% of Americans when New York became the 6th state to legalize gay marriage. But while I cheered the happy gay couples, another part of my brain is ambivalent about the victory. After all, the institution of marriage has a sordid history—from sexist wedding rituals to cultural and legal ties that keep women trapped with abusers. And getting married means more housework for women and less for men.
At the same time, marriage brings benefits that LGBT folks have been denied. And full access to marriage (and divorce) removes one strand from the web of homophobia, sexism, and racism that batterers can use to control their partners. For example:
- When a couple’s relationship is publically acknowledged and celebrated, homophobia loses its power to isolate LGBT people from the support of their family and friends. This means they have more help—both to have great relationships and when violence happens.
- We know that child custody issues are a major barrier to leaving an abuser. And for LGBT parents, marriage means that the non-biological parent is more likely to have their parental rights recognized by family courts, schools, and health care providers.
Right wing rhetoric claims that the mere act of gay couples saying “I do” is enough to upend the institution of marriage. If only radical social change was that simple! I’m rooting for a day when we achieve marriage equality and much more—economic justice for women; healthy, equitable relationships for everyone; and public policies that support all families, married or not.
Same sex couples can legally marry in five states and the District of Columbia. But state law allowing marriage is not enough. Without federal recognition, the benefits and protections that marriage affords same sex spouses are not portable from state to state. As several recent cases show, couples may not be able to get a divorce anywhere their marriage isn’t recognized. For LGBT survivors of domestic violence, this can mean being legally tied to an abuser with no way to divide property or establish child custody.
The right to divorce doesn’t make for feel-good campaigns about equality and love. (And when was the last time you heard anti-gay activists insist on preserving the sanctity of divorce between one man and one woman?) Yet the ability to get out of a legal marriage contract is every bit as important as the right to get in.
All of us who care about ending domestic violence need to fight for full marriage equality. We need to demand that the federal government recognize all marriages. Anything less leaves LGBT partners vulnerable.