Gay Writer Boycotts Straight Weddings
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
It's June, and we've got marriage on our minds. In a moment, the skyrocketing expense of weddings in India actually has some of that nation's lawmakers trying to figure out ways to put a lid on the cost of these ceremonies. That conversation is a bit later in the program.
But, first, back to the debate about who gets to put a ring on it in this country. Now, it has to be said, many people have a love/hate relationship with weddings. We might love being there to celebrate family and friends on the big day, but still hate the demanding gift lists, the drama and, for all the single ladies and gentlemen, the nosy questions about when you are next.
Writer Rich Benjamin won't be dealing with any of that for the foreseeable future. That's because he is boycotting weddings to protest the lack of marriage rights across the country for himself and other gay and lesbian Americans. He wrote about his personal boycott and called upon others to join him in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times. And he's with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
RICH BENJAMIN: Thanks, Michel. Delighted to be here.
MARTIN: Was it something that had been on your mind for awhile? Or did you just have a tipping point in saying that's it, I'm done?
BENJAMIN: I had a tipping point. This year, I happened to receive four wedding invitations, and last year I received five. And suddenly, it struck me that it would be absurd for me to attend an institution and a celebration that I can't participate in in the vast majority of this country.
MARTIN: Now, you say in your piece: How utterly absurd to celebrate an institution that I'm banned from in most of the country. It puzzles me, truth be told, that wedding invitations deluge me. Does a vegan frequent summer pig roasts? Do devout Evangelicals crash couple-swapping parties? Do undocumented immigrants march in Minutemen rallies?
You really think that's fair?
BENJAMIN: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: I mean, I know you're being funny. But you really think those are the right analogies? Just the only point I would make here is that marriage is legal for same-gender-loving individuals in five states and the District of Columbia. And there's been a lot of legislative progress in a short amount of time, if you, you know, think about the broad sweep of history.
BENJAMIN: True. But five out of 50 states is very small. And those five states hold an underwhelming percentage of the population. So the fact remains that in the vast majority of this country, it's illegal for gay people.
MARTIN: Well, the way a boycott usually works is that it punishes people who are responsible or complicit in the wrongdoing. For example, you know, during the civil rights era, boycotting the buses as a way to withhold your, sort of, your economic support from institutions that are discriminating against you. In this instance, though, it would seem as though you're boycotting your friends. Do you hold them complicit for this state of affairs?
BENJAMIN: Well, you use the word punish. I don't want to punish my friends. I just want to be a conscientious objector to straight weddings. So no, I don't want to punish my friends. But the truth is also that all straight people who get married, who participate in this institution are in some way complicit, because you can't have an institution without spending, without ceremonies, without people's participation. So, yes, I do hold them complicit.
MARTIN: You're saying that screaming zealots aren't the only obstacles to equal marriage rights. The passivity of good people like Zach - that was a friend who invited you to his wedding and you informed him that you weren't coming - you say, it's the passivity of good people like Zach who tacitly fortify the inequality of this institution are also to blame. How so?
BENJAMIN: What I mean by that statement is now we have an instance where it's not really, or it's not simply the screaming zealots who are the obstacle to progress. It's the silence of good people. And we have to include President Obama as being a fence-sitter and as a silent good person who really is allowing this inequality to continue.
MARTIN: You wrote in your opinion piece that you don't consider yourself a gay activist. When we talked about marriage rights - we talk about marriage rights on the program. A number have told us that they think that this whole focus on equality in marriage is really the obsession of an elite minority within the gay community. They say that really, the bigger issue for many, many people is job discrimination, having access to partners and family members in the event of an emergency, equal, you know, adoption rights, because some, you know, people who are same-gender-loving people might still be parents, and then they find their parental rights being compromised.
And there are a number of people who have told us that they just think that this is the preoccupation of a few people, a lot of, you know, writers and high-profile creative people in New York and L.A. and Washington, but that this isn't where most people are living. And I just wanted to ask you: What do you think of that? You think that that's true?
BENJAMIN: I think we should not be asked to triage our lives. We should not be asked to triage our rights and say oh, we can only fight for job discrimination and put gay marriage on the backburner. I would also say that there's absolutely no evidence that says only rich people want to get married or only coastal people want to get married. These are people who want to get married who are denied rights across the country. It is a nationwide desire to be treated equally in this country. So I would - I'm always baffled when people say this is the obsession of rich, urban people.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking with author Rich Benjamin. He recently wrote a piece for The New York Times where he says he is boycotting weddings until - I assume it's until - gay and lesbian people, same-gender-loving people have the same right to marry as heterosexual individuals do.
I take it your friends aren't taking this well.
BENJAMIN: Many are not. Some think I'm being peevish and a bit churlish, and there's a small percent who say I get it. I completely get it.
MARTIN: What response have you gotten to the piece?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BENJAMIN: I've gotten quite a bit of response, Michel. It's been incredible, and it's taken me aback a bit. And many of the letters...
MARTIN: Well, what are they saying? I mean, people aren't trying to tempt you with their hors d'oeuvre list and say well, I know you'll come because, you know, I'm serving the good shrimp at mine.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: So what are they saying?
BENJAMIN: No, Michel, I didn't get a single invitation in any of those responses. The majority of the responses are angry. And some of them really irritated me because there's an arrogance to them. It's - they're seething with this arrogance that says: How dare you do this? Haven't we done enough for you people? Haven't your rights gone far enough? But also, what touched me among the responses are the gay people who wrote me and said, thank you for saying what I didn't have the words to say. You put language to a feeling and a hurt that I've had for a long time, and I was delighted to open the newspaper and find it printed.
MARTIN: Okay, I'll put you on the spot, here. If you have gay friends who are getting married in a state where it's legal, are you going?
BENJAMIN: That's a great question. I have never received an invitation to a legal gay wedding in the five states that allow it. So I would have to think about that. That's never happened.
MARTIN: Well, if you do get invitation, do you want me to help you pick out a present?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BENJAMIN: Do you have good taste?
MARTIN: I think so.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BENJAMIN: Then I'd love your input.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Okay. How long is the boycott going to last? And I'm not making fun of you. I just want to - I just - I do understand exactly the spirit that you're saying here. But how long is this going to last? Is it until - is there a threshold? Is it all 50 states? Is it federal? Is it...
BENJAMIN: It's either a federal law or 50-state laws. It's an all-or-nothing type thing for this personal boycott.
MARTIN: Rich Benjamin is a writer. His most recent book is "Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America." He was nice enough to join us from our bureau in New York. If you want to read Rich's piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, check out our website. Go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE from the Program page. We'll link to it there.
Rich Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us.
BENJAMIN: Thank you, Michel.
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