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Debate: Does Marriage Equality Reinforce a Conservative Institution or Support Social Change?

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As the U.S. Supreme Court heard two major cases this week on marriage equality, we look at how the issue has divided some in the LGBT movement. Longtime activist and blogger Scot Nakagawa wrote a popular essay this week called “Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change.” The article drew so much traffic that it crashed his server, twice. We speak to Nakagawa and Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, one of the leading campaigns to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. “The marriage issue, while very important and a step toward greater freedoms, is not the whole ball of wax, as there’s much more that we need to fight for. I think we recognize that most people in our society do not live in traditional nuclear family arrangements,” Nakagawa says. “Most of us actually live outside of those arrangements and deserve to also have the protections of our government.” Solomon, who attended Wednesday’s Supreme Court arguments, responds, “There’s a lot that you’re saying that I fully agree with, especially the idea that marriage for our LGBT community is not everything. And it’s an important milestone. … I think the challenge is to use the power and the momentum that we’re building through the marriage fights to secure other gains.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get into a whole discussion about where—if DOMA is struck down, what this means—or not. As the Supreme Court heard these two major cases this week on marriage equality, we want to look at how the issue has impacted the LGBT movement overall.

Scot Nakagawa is joining us along with Marc Solomon. He’s a well-known blogger, longtime LGBT activist. On Monday, he wrote an essay called “Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change.” The piece drew so much traffic, it crashed his server twice. He is senior partner of ChangeLab, a grassroots social justice think tank. His work on same-sex marriage extends back into the ’90s, when the issue was part of the focus of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Marc Solomon is still with us, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, one of the leading campaigns to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

We welcome you, as well, Scot, to this discussion. Your thoughts on these historic two days in the Supreme Court?

SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, I find this very exciting. You know, I’m like many other people watching the TV with bated breath, hoping for a good decision. I have been in a 19-year partnership. You know, my partner is everything to me. And we have been together through sickness and in health, through richer and poorer, and have faced all of the kinds of struggles that same-sex couples struggle with. And so, you know, I’m hoping that we get a good outcome here. And watching this case has been, you know, just an incredibly fascinating study in how this issue has moved since I first encountered it in the ’90s, when the task force to me to Hawaii to help support activists there who were fighting on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what it is, what you think you tapped, when you wrote this first piece that crashed your server twice.

SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, you know, I think that what I tapped when I wrote that piece is a kind of broad sense in the LGBT community that the marriage issue, while very important and a step toward greater freedoms, is not the whole ball of wax, as there’s much more that we need to fight for. I think we recognize that most people in our society do not live in traditional nuclear family arrangements. Most of us actually live outside of those arrangements and deserve to also have the protections of our government. So while marriage is obviously an important civil right and we should fight for that civil right—after all, it’s a civil institution, and government is arbitrarily deciding that some of us can’t participate, something which is not just, you know, a legal slight, it also says that our relationships, our love, is not legitimate. And, you know, that’s something that taps a really deep well of emotion in people. But I think that, you know, people are also concerned about how we take care of the whole community.

When you talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, you’re talking about a community of intersections. We represent every part of society. We are rich and poor. We are of every race, culture, age, class, gender. We are a community that is forged in struggle, that has created an identity, has had to fight for years to imbue that identity with pride, and has finally come to this point. We embrace one another in a way that I think few do. You know, we are a bridge community. We come together across traditional divides in society. And so, we want to make sure that as we move forward, that we don’t forget that there are more of us out there, for whom marriage is simply not going to be satisfying.

You know, many of us do not live in conjugal relations. We live in extended and blended families. Many of us choose not to get married. If we choose not to get married, we face many of the kinds of struggles that, you know, we face now. For instance, I have been with my partner, as I said, for 19 years. We’ve owned three homes together during that time. We have never owned a home together. We have never been able to get a mortgage together. That makes getting a mortgage awfully difficult, and getting a good one next to impossible. If, at any time, one of us had died in this relationship, there was no way to really protect ownership of those assets. You know, I employ someone at ChangeLab who is in a heterosexual partnership. She chooses not to get married. And she has to pay taxes on her medical—on the medical benefits that we provide to her. You know, these are the kinds of concerns I think that we really need to look at.

I think many of us also recognize, from looking back at history, the kind of, you know, divisive effect that certain kinds of gains can have. And so, I’m not saying that winning marriage rights will actually result in the community dividing around this issue, but I’m saying that we should have a robust conversation about it. We should talk about what it meant, for instance, when the more radical demands of the civil rights movement basically, you know, lost momentum when the 1964 and '65 Civil Rights Acts passed. You know, when those really important gains were made, some of the efforts to address structural racism—the racial-wealth divide, for instance—really lost steam. And we don't want that to happen in our case. You know, we just care for each other too much, and we want to make sure that we take care of the whole community.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you talk about LGB, not LGBT.



SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, you know, I started out referencing LGBT. At one point I dropped the “T” because I think that there’s nothing at all conservative about challenging the gender binary. And, you know, what I was making an argument for is that marriage is an essentially conservative institution, and the demand for marriage is an essentially conservative demand. I don’t mean by “conservative” that it’s equate—that we should equate the demand with, you know, Newt Gingrich, for example. You know, a lot of people hear that term, “conservative,” and they immediately think I mean reactionary. But what I’m saying is that it’s a status quo institution. You know, it doesn’t fundamentally change the way that society views family or the way government provides for families. And so, that’s why I dropped it at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: Marc Solomon, your response to what Scot Nakagawa is saying?

MARC SOLOMON: Well, I have a couple of responses. I mean, first, there’s a lot that you’re saying that I fully agree with, especially the idea that marriage for our LGBT community is not—you know, is not everything. And it’s an important milestone. It’s something that a lot of same-sex couples really want, and want to be able to take care of their families and want the societal recognition, etc. But there are also plenty of other needs that our community has, from employment nondiscrimination to youth suicide, to seniors who are—you know, who really don’t have great, great care. So, I think the challenge is to use the power and the momentum that we’re building through the marriage fights to secure other gains. And that’s the—you know, I hope that’s part of the discussion that we have as we hopefully approach victory in the not terribly distant future.


SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, you know, I mean, I’m certainly not arguing for either/or. I think it’s a both/and strategy that we need. I think that you’re right: There are many other issues on the agenda.

You know, in my work with ChangeLab, we deal with primarily Asian-American communities and issues of race. That is the main focus of the work. And, you know, one of the things that we deal with in that work is the model minority stereotype. We are told by people who are organizing communities to advance a racial justice agenda in Asian-American communities that many internalize that stereotype and that it makes it difficult to organize people to deal with real structural problems around racial inequality. And, you know, I think we all internalize the myth; you know, every one of us does, regardless of race. But some of us do actually exhibit some of the characteristics of the stereotype—being very ambitious, you know, academic achievers, who are very success-oriented. And the closer we come to actually embodying the stereotype, the easier it is to internalize it.

I think, within the LGBT community, we face a similar kind of phenomenon, where the closer you come to fitting that nuclear family definition, the more easily we internalize it, the more easily it naturalizes within us, and it becomes difficult to see how some of those things really do not include other people.

But, you know, I really want to make the point, though, that my objection is to the framing of this in the mainstream media, that it is, you know, the last great issue, that is the future of the LGBT movement. I think that what we need to do is speak beyond that and talk beyond marriage, about what the whole agenda is and where marriage fits into it. You know, when we have the right to marry, and I believe we will, I’m getting married.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a comment from Edie Windsor, who did just what you want to do, the plaintiff in the DOMA lawsuit, speaking Wednesday on the steps of the Supreme Court after the justices heard her case. It originally is called Windsor v. United States, but once it gets to the Supreme Court, it becomes United States v. Windsor.

EDIE WINDSOR: Many people ask me, “Why get married?” I was 77; Thea was 75. OK, and maybe we were older than that at that point. But the fact is that everybody treated it as differently. It turns out marriage is different. And I’ve asked a number of long-range couples, gay couples, who then got married, I’ve asked them, you know, “Was it different the next morning?” And the answer is always yes, it’s a huge difference. When—OK, when our marriage appeared in The New York Times, we heard from literally hundreds of people, I mean, little playmates and schoolmates and colleagues and friends and relatives all congratulating us and sending love, because we were married. So it’s a magic word. For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it, OK, it is magic.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Edie Windsor. She lost her spouse in 2009, Thea Spyer, and together—that is why she brought this lawsuit that ended up challenging DOMA. Scot, is marriage magical?

SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, marriage has certainly got the power to legitimize relationships. You know, I mean, for generations, marriage has been how we’ve named relationships as legitimate. And so, I think that, you know, people feel really powerfully about it.

You know, I’m a community organizer, right? That’s my main path in life. And I recognize that in order to build movements for change, you have to speak to people’s hearts and not just their minds. And marriage has done that for the community and, I think, galvanized us. You know, when people are hungry, they don’t join marches to protest against poverty because it will put food on their table; they do it in order to win recognition and respect and acknowledgment of their humanity in spite of their poverty.

And I think this is one of those issues for the LGBT community where something similar is happening. You know, marriage has this normative sort of effect. It’s a legitimizing institution. It’s one that says that something about your relationship is recognized, not just by the government, but by major cultural institutions—or we would hope that they would be. And so there’s a real cultural meaning to marriage, and I think it does kind of work like magic in making people feel as though relationships are legitimate. I hope we can look beyond that and start to see more and more kinds of family arrangements as legitimate, but certainly I think it has that effect.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Scot Nakagawa, longtime LGBT activist, whose online essay, “Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change,” went viral this week, and Marc Solomon. Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Love is in the Air” by John Paul Young. You can see, if you’re listening on the radio, at the images of Edie and Thea through their four decades. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

Several of the Supreme Court justices spoke Wednesday about how the Obama administration had continued to enforce DOMA, even though it would no longer defend it in court. Well, Obama himself spoke about the Defense of Marriage Act during an interview Wednesday with the Spanish-language news station Telemundo.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve known a lot of same-sex couples who are committed, who are raising kids. For them to be treated differently, I think, is not fair, and I think an increasing number of Americans agree with that. So, I think it is time for the justices to examine this issue. And I certainly believe that those states that have made a decision to recognize these couples as being married, that the federal government has to respect that decision by the states. That’s traditionally been how it works. States have defined marriage, and the federal government has followed the lead of the states. And so, my hope is, is that the court reaches these issues and that we end up living in a country where everybody is treated fairly. That’s what I think is the most important thing about America.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama. And as we go beyond DOMA, whether or not it is struck down, can you respond to President Obama, Scot Nakagawa, but also talk about where you see the movement going?

SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, where I hope to see the movement going is to address more and more of the kinds of nontraditional families that we live in and to seek protections for those families. I think that, you know, when the majority of people within any given society, and certainly within our community, live in non—outside of traditional nuclear families, that what happens to those families is of great consequence to all of us. Not protecting those families makes us all vulnerable. And so, I’d like to see us be able to come together and articulate a broad, progressive, family-values agenda and figure out where that fits into a broader struggle toward achieving the common good.

AMY GOODMAN: Marc Solomon, your group is called Freedom to Marry. Where do you go from here? I mean, not to say we absolutely know that DOMA will be struck down.

MARC SOLOMON: No, I think where we go immediately from here and long term is, you know, we want to not take anything for granted and really want to ensure that we win. So we are working to win marriage in four states right now—in Illinois, in Minnesota, in Rhode Island and Delaware.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain this. What does it mean if DOMA is struck down? What actually does that mean for people?

MARC SOLOMON: It means that couples like—you know, like Edie Windsor a couple of years ago, couples who are married in New York and in the nine other—eight other states where there is marriage for gay couples, are eligible for all of the same protections that straight married couples get, so from Social Security to tax benefits and tax treatments to—

AMY GOODMAN: Eleven hundred laws are affected.

MARC SOLOMON: Right, and some of them are really significant. And there are some really terrible stories of people who have been denied them. So, you know, we’re going to keep making the case for why DOMA is wrong and the integrity of same-sex relationships and the integrity of marriage and why marriage matters to gay and lesbian people. And, you know, we certainly aren’t counting our chickens yet. We still have—you know, we still have work to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And the movement that you envision, the issues, in particular, Scot, that you would like to see addressed?

SCOT NAKAGAWA: Well, I’d like to see us, you know, advance domestic partnership protections for everyone. I’d like us to see us make our family laws more roomy, so that all of us can fit in them. I certainly think that we need to be a part of the fight for, you know, greater security, greater—you know, more access to more things. You know, I think that, for instance, many of our welfare regulations reflect a very narrow view of family. And I think we need to correct that. You know, it has some real economic consequence for people. And so I think that what it is is about piecing together the way that these laws fit more and more people, every part of our community, and articulate an agenda around it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. And I want people to weigh in on our Facebook page and also on Twitter as we continue this discussion. Marc Solomon, thanks so much for being with us, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, and Scot Nakagawa, longtime LGBT activist whose online essay, “Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change,” went viral, crashed his website. We’ll see if it crashes again, Scot.

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