Letters to the Editor

Published in: January-February 2007 issue.

John D’Emilio’s Rap on Marriage

To the Editor,

In John D’Emilio’s article, his strongest point is this: reaction against the campaign for marriage equality “has created a vast body of new antigay laws.” Despite my own marriage on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall (later invalidated by the California Supreme Court), I have always harbored the fear that all this is going too fast. My fears have been borne out by this body of new antigay laws. I thank Mr. D’Emilio for being brave enough to say, “The emperor has no clothes!”

All of our foes and many in our community are too wedded to the word “marriage.” It has power—maybe in the U.S. at this point in history, too much power to fight. Many states have reacted to our push for marriage equality by passing constitutional amendments that outlaw civil unions as well as same-sex marriage. These are giant steps backward.

We seek equal benefits and equal treatment under the law. This is much more important than the word “marriage.” I don’t care what they call equal treatment: domestic partnership, civil unions, or civil partnership (as they do in Britain) as long as we have all the same benefits and rights.
Marriage activists will argue that the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board that “separate is inherently unequal.” But domestic partnerships and civil union policies are not separate or unequal when enacted by legislative bodies that have power over the rights and benefits we seek. In all of Britain, there’s no legal difference between being married and being registered civil partners. In the U.S., only city and state governments have passed civil union policies, and they have no power over federal law. The federal rights bestowed by Massachusetts’ same-sex marriage are exactly the same as Vermont’s civil unions or California’s domestic partnerships: zero. So what the hell are we fighting for?

Marriage activists will argue, “What of our same-sex marriage victories in Canada, Spain, South Africa, and elsewhere?” I say, “That’s great!” But Canadian married lesbian and gay men have no more rights than Britain’s civil partners. And Canada ain’t the U.S.! It is unrealistic to think that same-sex marriage will be passed at the federal level any time soon. And it will never happen unless we lay the appropriate political groundwork. That work must start with domestic partnerships and civil unions. We must start building a national consensus for civil unions on a state-by-state basis. Perhaps some day they might decide to call it marriage. But until then, we must seek equal protection before the law regardless of what term is used.

As John D’Emilio has said, we now have a vast body of new antigay laws. How could this be undone? On October 26, 2004, George W. Bush said, “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do. I view the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights. States ought to be able to have the right to pass laws that enable people to be able to have rights like others.”

If our community changed course away from this disastrous “marriage” policy, the lesbian/gay community could propose the following constitutional amendment: 1) “Marriage” in the U.S. is defined as a union of one man and one woman. 2) Any state may enact a domestic partnership or civil union policy. 3) Neither Congress, the president, any state or local government, nor any government agency may restrict the enactment of domestic partnership or civil union policies. Such an amendment would give our foes the victory they want and it would undo all of the legislative damage this fight has done, including all of the state constitutional amendments outlawing civil unions. More importantly, it would put the GLBT community on a course of achieving equal protection under the law, regardless of what it is called.
Leland Traiman, Chair of Berkeley’s 1984 Domestic Partner Task Force


To the Editor,

It was such a relief to see John D’Emilio’s very sensible essay on the gay marriage issue. Of course we want equal rights. Of course we want equal benefits for our partners. Why, though, has it been necessary to insist on calling it “marriage,” handing the bigots a perfect hot-button issue to attack us with and bringing hoards of their supporters to the polls?

If we had simply continued to push for “domestic partnerships” and “equal rights,” we’d have gotten far wider support, and I’m convinced would be much farther along than we are now. We’d also likely have John Kerry instead of the disastrous George W. Bush as president, and wouldn’t have a Supreme Court two more justices further to the right.

I’m 71 and I’ve been in a committed relationship for 25 years. Those activists who’ve insisted on calling for “marriage” have made it unlikely that I’ll ever see true equal rights for my partner and me in my lifetime.

Thom Geist, Cleveland


To the Editor,

I was disappointed to see John D’Emilio’s defeatist article, “The Marriage Fight Is Setting Us Back,” in your Nov.-Dec. issue. Mr. D’Emilio claims that “the campaign for marriage equality runs against history” (!) and is “racing into the wind … an unmitigated disaster,” just because some state legislatures have voted to ban it.

I would suggest to Mr. D’Emilio and other defeatists that these are early days; if the fighters for black civil rights had given up so easily, we’d still be sitting around in segregated facilities congratulating ourselves heartily on the abolition of slavery. Legal equality—and that’s what the debate is really about—will not occur in a year, or a decade. It will have to be fought for, and it will take a while. The process has already begun: on the same day I read Mr. D’Emilio’s piece, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples must be accorded rights equal to those of straights.

But the most extraordinary thing about Mr. D’Emilio’s piece is its total focus on the United States, as if those of us in the rest of the world don’t count. Here in Canada, same-sex marriage has been legal for over a year, the sky has not fallen, and a conservative campaign to repeal the legislation has stalled. Same-sex marriage is now accepted in Holland, Belgium, and Spain, with South Africa and possibly the Philippines soon to follow. Several other countries grant civil unions that constitute marriage in all but name.

The rest of the civilized world is moving forward on this issue, with or without the U.S. We see no reason to reverse ourselves and decide that same-sex marriage “isn’t working.” Perhaps Mr. D’Emilio would like to come to Canada and debate the matter. He will be welcomed by many conservatives. But he may find his reception in the GLBT community somewhat less than enthusiastic.

Ian Young, Toronto


To the Editor:

I was very pleased to see John D’Emilio’s critique of the gay marriage effort. He’s right that the demand for marriage equality has backfired.

Because we ran the lesbian/gay community bookstore and were a very visible couple in the gay community of Austin, my partner Kip Dollar and I were “poster boys” for an early wave of the marriage effort. In 1991, we were the male couple who joined with a lesbian couple to apply and be turned down for marriage licenses in a political “zap” that made the national evening news, and two years later we were the first male couple to register as domestic partners in Texas.

Back then, Craig Dean, who with Patrick Gill started the gay marriage effort in 1989 by filing suit in Washington, D.C., came to Austin at the invitation of the University of Texas gay students association. When the student group failed to raise the $1,000 honorarium they’d promised him, our bookstore stepped in and fulfilled the commitment. I’ve wondered in retrospect—partly tongue-in-cheek and partly in mock-megalomania—if Dean might have given up on the whole effort if that honorarium hadn’t come through. Maybe all this would have been nipped in the bud, who knows?

What D’Emilio’s very insightful analysis does not touch on, however, is how the gay marriage campaign has changed our self-image. Following a principle I learned from Toby Marotta, my first collaborator, all gay political and cultural activity and publicity should be assessed in terms of how it affects gay people’s self-concept and, particularly, that of gay youth. All such action should make the gay community happier. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?
In the mid-80’s, at the height of the tragedy of AIDS, gay men were being presented as extremely promiscuous. This image conveyed to gay youths just figuring out their identity that this is what lay ahead for them. Twenty years later, the expectation has changed. Gay men and lesbians are now as likely thought of as happily settled couples. The specter of loneliness and isolation and sexual compulsivity has been diminished (along with some of the sexiness) through pictures of middle-aged couples who’ve been together longer than most married straight couples. That’s not an altogether bad side effect.

D’Emilio is right that the acceptance of gayness has happened in great part because heterosexuals have come to live more like us. He attributes this to capitalism and economic forces. We’re the pioneers who first demonstrated the changes that modern culture was working in human relationships.

There’s another analysis that complements D’Emilio’s socio-economic explanation. It’s what I would call the gay spiritual explanation. According to the new-paradigm science and ecological perspectives, planet earth is evolving at the level of consciousness. In some way, gay people are both early adopters and inadvertent change agents in the evolution of earth. We demonstrate what’s coming and we facilitate its spread.

As previous poster boys, Kip and I strongly second John D’Emilio’s call for moving on beyond marriage-equality demands. And, now partners of nearly 23 years, we’re both very happy the gay self-image includes fulfilling love relationship and grateful to be living on the edge of an evolution of consciousness, even though it is sometimes precarious. How wonderful gay life has turned out to be. That’s the message the gay youth need to hear. That’s the point.

Toby Johnson, San Antonio, TX


To the Editor:

I applaud the courage and wisdom expressed by John D’Emilio in his article. It certainly appears that we have reached a dead end and need to re-evaluate our strategy. However, I do not share his contempt for the marriage advocates. In the 1980’s we learned the vulnerability of our relationships not only from AIDS, but also from the case of the comatose lesbian whose family didn’t want her lover taking care of her. Marriage law was and still is the only institution we have that protects the multiple aspects of living and sharing a life together.

After 43 years in a committed relationship, my partner and I may finally have all the security we need in the California Domestic Partnership Law. At least we can now file joint state income tax returns! I have always felt that marriage is not the issue, but rather legal protection for all those who are living together with a commitment to care for one another. Two elderly women choosing to share a life together for companionship and security aren’t necessarily lesbians, for example. I look forward to reading the document “Beyond Same Sex Marriage” [a white paper signed by D’Emilio and other activists]to see if it covers my concerns.

E. Kenneth Bennett, Torrance CA


Gay Rodeos Not a Sign of Progress

To the Editor:

This is in response to Patricia Nell Warren’s article back in the July-August 06 issue, in which she discusses the phenomenon of gay rodeos without making any reference to the ethical implications of this “sport.” I for one do not see the advent of gay rodeos as a sign of progress.

As a community that has long been the target of discrimination and oppression, we should have heightened sensitivity to the oppression of others—and this should extend to the most vulnerable in our society—the animals. As the director of the Chicago-based animal advocacy organization Mercy For Animals (MFA), I spent seven months undercover attending rodeo events to investigate and document the treatment of the non-human “competitors.” What I and other MFA investigators uncovered was disturbing.

Behind the scenes, out of view from the ticket-holding public, I witnessed “cowboys” mercilessly beating bulls with metal rods on the head, face, neck, and back. At nearly every rodeo we investigated, “cowboys” were documented violently punching, kicking, tormenting, and hitting animals with whips, rods, sticks, and spurred boots. Furthermore, to irritate these normally tame and docile animals, rodeo contestants often use electric prods that produce 5,000 to 6,000 volts of electricity on animals confined in chutes and pens. MFA’s undercover videos show animals frantically trying to escape the painful shock.

Often the rodeo is simply a detour on the road to the slaughterhouse in these animals’ short and miserable lives. Dr. C. G. Haber, a veterinarian who worked for thirty years as a meat inspector in slaughterhouses, saw scores of animals discarded from rodeos and sent to slaughter. Toughened as he was to animal suffering, the condition of animals from rodeos sickened him. He described them as “so extensively bruised that the only areas in which the skin was attached (to the flesh) were the head, neck, leg, and belly. … I have seen animals with six to eight ribs broken from the spine and, at times, puncturing the lungs. I have seen as much as two to three gallons of free blood accumulated under the detached skin. Bullfights are merciful compared to rodeos. It’s high time this cruel sport be outlawed in the United States.”

Let’s face it: the rodeo is a form of violence masquerading as entertainment. That its victims are not human makes it no less violent or acceptable. The entire rodeo environment encourages spectators and rodeo participants alike to be insensitive to animal suffering and accept inhumane treatment of the animal “performers.” Gay rodeos are not progress for our community but instead a step back for all of humanity. Please visit MercyForAnimals.org for more information.

Nathan Runkle, Executive Director,
Mercy For Animals, Chicago


Semantics of Liberation

To the Editor:
Judith A. Peraino’s “Song of the Sirens” [Sept.-Oct. 06 issue] is an excellent work, except, in my opinion, for a single part of a single sentence (in itals.): “Savagery, specifically the tearing and eating of raw flesh (sparagmos), and sexual licentiousness, commonly represented by satyrs, haunted every Dionysian ritual, just as destruction haunts the very principle of liberation.”

There is a lot of evidence that would tend to confirm this conclusion. There was a description of similar use of music and dance in Gilbert Hertz’s “Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia.” An elderly anthropologist remembered stopping the dance as the members of the tribe’s eyes glazed over and they began to enter such a state. Africa has examples of rituals where trance is encouraged. And, there are numerous stories of members of some Pentecostal churches in the U.S. where people are still “carried away” during a religious service. Recently, I heard a talk on the part of some musicians from Latin America describing trance music both on the Islands and on the South American continent. One of the speakers even traced such music to specific countries in Africa.

What bothers me about that part of that sentence is that it seems to play into a cultural sense as to “the boundaries of liberation.” Too often, even among GLBT people, we see an attitude that “we might go too far.” Too many of us seem to fear ourselves! I do not equate liberation with sexual abandon. To me, liberation has to do with our attitude toward ourselves as much as toward our partners, whether for a lifetime or a night. It has to do with learning our value and respecting each other. It also has to do with the rest of our culture or a citizenry that practices that same mutual respect.

Despite all the nonsense about “the downfall of the family” if gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, what has happened in one of the Scandinavian countries is an increase in heterosexual marriages along with an increase in their stability. In other words, legalizing same-sex marriages seems to have improved the state of marriage across the board.

I view the “principle of liberation” as one that leads to mutual respect, stability of relationships, the resolution of racism and sexism, and acceptance of GLBT life. I do not see it as haunted by destruction but instead as predicated on peace.

John Kavanaugh, Detroit


Robert Browning’s Métier

To the Editor:

These days, when any historical figure who has looked askance at someone of the same sex is qualified anachronistically as “gay,” I cannot let stand Richard Canning’s statement (Nov.-Dec 2006 issue) that “Robert Browning was one of several schoolmasters dismissed in the 1870’s for close friendship with students.”

Browning’s legendary romance with Elizabeth Barrett should remain unsullied by this gaffe. He was never a schoolmaster and consequently never dismissed. Canning must be thinking of Oscar Browning, a master at Eton and friend of Simeon Solomon, with whom he visited Italy in 1868 and 1869. Browning’s mentor William Cory was persuaded to resign from Eton in 1872, owing to indiscretions with students, and Browning himself resigned in 1875. Although Browning was drawn to many boys under his care, the chief reason for his resignation was the headmaster’s demand, prompted by a nosy fellow housemaster, that Browning cease any intimacy with a particular student. The official statement was that he had transgressed regulations over the number of the boys in his house. Browning continued to serve, briefly, in a number of academic posts, in which he entertained sailors, stable boys and other proles as well as his pupils, before leaving under a cloud. Unlike his namesake (Oscar, not Browning), he was never legally prosecuted.

Laurence Senelick, Professor of Drama and Oratory, Tufts University, Medford, MA



Due to an editing error in a review of Darwin Porter’s Katharine the Great in the Nov.-Dec. 06 issue, it was incorrectly reported that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were married. In fact, while their affair lasted for many years, they rarely lived together during that time and were never married.