Op-Ed: New York's Gay Marriage Vote Is Not Enough

New York's vote to legalize gay marriage is an important step, but it's not enough, says writer Bruce Steele. The time for symbolic unions, half-measures, and state-by-state laws has passed, he says, and only nationwide equality will do.

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LYNN NEARY, host: Now, "The Opinion Page." New York state has now joined Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., in legalizing same-sex marriage. Bruce Steele, who met his partner 25 years ago in New York, applauds the state's decision. He says he will happily attend his friends' weddings there, but he says he won't be rushing to have a wedding of his own in New York. After traveling to different states several times to get married, Steele says he and his partner want to get married legally where they live, in North Carolina.

Steele shares his personal account in the op-ed "Reflecting on Marriage Milestones," which appeared in The Advocate. Are you in a same-sex relationship? Have you considered trying to get married? Why or why not? Tell us your story; our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation at our website. Find a link to the op-ed, go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bruce Steele is the features editor for the Citizen-Times, and he joins us on the phone now from Asheville, North Carolina. Good to have you with us, Bruce.

BRUCE STEELE: Hey, Lynn. Nice to be here.

NEARY: Now, you began your op-ed - or you began your piece by saying you've been married four, maybe five times. Tell us a little bit more about your marital history.

STEELE: Well, it's all about degrees of equality. When we first met 25 years ago, there was no way for any sort of recognition of our relationship. Then, 18 years ago, in 1993, they - we were living in New York City, and there was a domestic partner registry established by the order of Mayor David Dinkins. And since that time, we've registered three or four more times in California and with our employers, but we have yet to have - well, we had one marriage ceremony that was legal, but it was only briefly legal, and that was in San Francisco in 2004.

NEARY: So you just don't want - why won't it cut it anymore, to go to a different state that - where it's legal, but come back to a state where it's not legal? Why does that just not work?

STEELE: Well, if a couple wants to have a symbolic ceremony, they can do it at home. But at the moment, getting married in another state and then coming home is still just a symbolic ceremony - unless you plan on suing your state, which I gather some people may try to do. But for the most part, for most people, marriages are not importable to a state where marriage for same-sex couples is not legal.

NEARY: Yeah. What is the situation in North Carolina right now?

STEELE: North Carolina, at the moment, is one of the few states in the South that does not have a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, although the legislature, which is newly dominated in both houses by the Republican Party, is now gearing up to try to pass such a constitutional amendment this year. Actually, they would pass it in legislature this year; it would be on the ballot next year.

NEARY: So what would you like to see happen, then? I mean, do you see much chance that - well, you don't see much chance, I guess, that there's going to be any law legalizing same-sex marriage in North Carolina, so what do you see happening, then? What would you like to see?

STEELE: Well, what's - what I'm watching most closely now - other than the situation in North Carolina, of course - is the court case in the federal courts about Proposition 8, which was the anti-gay marriage proposition passed in 2008 in California, which at least one federal judge has ruled unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. If that reaches the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court agrees with the lower courts, then individual constitutional amendments in various states become irrelevant.

NEARY: Are you encouraged by what just happened in New York, at all?

STEELE: I am encouraged. I it is that long list of states, and the District of Columbia, that you started the program with, people have to understand, most of those were by court's decree rather than by a passage of the representatives of the people. What's particularly historic about New York, as in a few other states, is that it was a law passed without any court ruling that it needed to be passed. It was simply something that the representative - the elective representatives of the people of New York thought was the right thing to do, and did it.

NEARY: And what was interesting was that the governor of New York, from everything I've read, made this a very, very high priority.

STEELE: He did. It was part of his platform when he ran for election last year, and it was part of his agenda when he was inaugurated earlier this year. That's correct.

NEARY: And some of what I've read, too, that's interesting is the idea that the political will may have come about to a large degree, possibly, because so many people are now, you know, aware of gay people in their lives - either as family members, as friends, as neighbors, as whatever. People are becoming more and more aware, therefore more accepting. Is that something that you see, sort of, happening and spreading in any way or...

STEELE: No. I think it's very true. It's true even here in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as anywhere else. The threat that for 18 years - we've been going through this on a national stage ever since the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled that same-sex marriage needed to be allowed under what was then the Hawaiian constitution, which was then amended.

But 18 years, we've been listening to scare tactics about what same-sex marriage would do to society, or would do to other people's relationships, or would do to children. And, in fact, none of the predictions - of course - has come true as same-sex marriage has been legalized in various locations and countries and states. So the arguments are falling away. And at the same time, yes, more people are being open about their relationships. And in response, their friends and neighbors and family are being accepting and even more important, nonchalant.

NEARY: We're talking with Bruce Steele about his op-ed, "Reflecting on Marriage Milestones," which ran in The Advocate. If you'd like to join our conversation, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to go to a call now from Lauren, and Lauren is calling from Manchester, New Hampshire. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN: Hello there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

LAUREN: So I am actually getting married to my fiancee, Kate, in about two weeks, here in New Hampshire. And we're very excited about it, of course. We've been together for about - this is going to be our seventh year, and we're getting married to the weekend that was closer to our anniversary when we first started dating. And I just wanted to comment on the fact that gay marriage is a very good idea economically because a two-bride wedding right now - let's see, we're spending about $15,000, most of it locally. And that's - it's all going back into our community. And so I just - I think that's something that seems to be left out of the argument sometimes.

NEARY: Now, are you from New Hampshire originally? Did you move there because you could get married there? Is that...

LAUREN: We - I originally moved here when I was a teenager, with my family. And we - Kate and I; Kate is originally from Maine, and we moved - and met in college, in New Hampshire. And we've definitely made a home here. And it was just a wonderful thing when they legalized gay marriage.

NEARY: So it's...

LAUREN: And we can have a legal wedding.

NEARY: Right. It's important to you that you can have this wedding in the place where you live. So where you live, your marriage will be legal then.

LAUREN: Yes, and that's wonderful. But also, it's kind of hard because, again, her family lives in Maine. My family is mostly down South. And so if we ever wanted to move close to our families, it would - we'd very deeply have to consider about what role our marriage will be legally.

NEARY: All right. Well, thank...

LAUREN: As of the state.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Lauren.

LAUREN: Thank you very much for having me.

NEARY: Now, Bruce Steele, I was curious. Did you ever consider moving to another state other than North Carolina, so you would be living in a state where same-sex marriage was legal?

STEELE: Well, speaking for myself and my partner, as I think for most Americans, we move where our careers and our family needs have taken us.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

STEELE: So most recently, we've moved to North Carolina and that's - this is where our family is. Christopher's mother lives with us. My parents live not too far away. So moving to a state where marriage was legal was not an option. It's really never been an option. That's not how lives tend to work.

NEARY: Right. Let's go to Katie(ph), who is calling from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, Katie.

KATIE: Hi. Good afternoon.

NEARY: Good afternoon. Go right ahead.

KATIE: Well, I live in Oklahoma, the buckle of the Bible Belt. So I'm originally from California, where they've been doing the Proposition 8 thing for a few years. And in my family there, I have an aunt that's actually just recently married her partner. And we've discussed going other places to get married because we'd like to adopt children and help out our DHS system here. But in Oklahoma, they don't care. It's not - it will - in my lifetime in Oklahoma, it probably won't be passed here. I would think that Oklahoma would probably start working on an amendment to change our constitution so we can't legally get married.

NEARY: So do you think you will stay in Oklahoma or...

KATIE: You know, it's very cheap to live in Oklahoma. You can live anywhere in the United States and pay quadruple what you pay in Oklahoma. And with jobs and my partner's family living here, you'd - like the last person said, you usually go where your family is and the job is. And to have to move to be able to legally have my partner be able to come see me in the hospital, or not have the double tax burdens that - I think it's unconstitutional in that way.

NEARY: Yeah. So you're probably going to stay there. But it sounds like it's - you're going to be facing some difficulties as a result.

KATIE: We are very careful about the taxes. We watch how we buy things. But we know that most of our friends are OK with everything. But most - it's a very church community here, so we're going to be - we will stay here and deal with it, and all our friends and family are fine with it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Katie.

KATIE: Thank you for taking my call. Have a great day.

NEARY: OK. You, too. We're going to go to Brian(ph), who's calling from Port Lucie, Florida. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hello, Lynn, how are you?

NEARY: I'm very well. Thanks.

BRIAN: Port St. Lucie, Florida, actually.

NEARY: Say that again.

BRIAN: Port St. Lucie.

NEARY: Port St. Lucie. You're right. I said that incorrectly.

BRIAN: Yes. And my partner and I are actually traveling to Connecticut to get married in July. And we picked Connecticut because it was the closest state to New Jersey, where we're both from, where we could - hopefully - get friends and family to attend. And after we got everything all said and done, you know, then New York passes. And it would have been so much more convenient to do it in New York. But Connecticut isn't that much further.

NEARY: So what is that going to mean for you? You're going to be legally married in Connecticut, but you're going to be living in Florida. The rights won't apply. I mean, the rights of marriage or the protections of marriage...

BRIAN: Oh, yes.

NEARY: ...will they apply in any way, where you are in Florida?

BRIAN: I don't believe so. I don't see Florida allowing marriage anytime soon. My partner is also of the Quaker faith, and I know the Quaker religion accepts the same-sex marriage so, yeah, in as much as possible, we're doing it in the Quaker style to legitimize it that way in - you know, within a recognized religion in the United States. So who knows? Maybe that will make a difference at some point. We don't know.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Brian.

BRIAN: Thank you.

NEARY: And now, I want to remind everybody that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. So Bruce Steele, we've got a couple of examples here of people in your position. In Oklahoma, probably going to have to stay there but not going to be able to - not foreseeing that they'll ever have a legalized marriage there; and in Florida, getting married in another state in what you would view as, at this point, really a purely symbolic wedding.

STEELE: Well, I imagine that they're - these couples, and my partner and I, all feel a bit like the interracial couples felt in the 1950s and early '60s, when there were many states that constitutionally banned interracial marriage. And then the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and said well, no, that was unconstitutional. And immediately, all those bans simply fell away. That can happen again with marriage equality.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now. We're going to go to Lisa, who's calling from Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi, Lisa.

LISA: Hi. I - as a heterosexual woman, I don't know if I have a whole lot to add to the conversation, but I am a speech therapist, and I recently graduated from school. And I can go anywhere in the country that I want to go. So when I'm talking to recruiters, if they're calling me from Iowa, I'm much more likely to consider moving to Iowa than I am to move to a state where it's illegal. I currently live in North Carolina, where it isn't accepted yet. But I plan on taking my tax dollars with me to a state that will allow it, just because I personally have so many reasons why I believe in it, that everybody's marriage should be accepted. But I want to be able to vote in a state that accepts it, pay my property and income taxes to a state that allows it. And - so yeah, I plan on voting with my dollars here as soon as - as soon as I can.

NEARY: Why is it so important to you, Lisa? You're a heterosexual. It's not going to affect you personally. Why is it such an important issue for you?

LISA: I guess because it seems to me that in 50 years from now, when my grandkids are like, Mom - or Grandma, why wasn't it allowed in your country? I'll say, I don't know. And it was shameful. I just - it's a moral issue for me, that I think everybody should be allowed to - you know, it's so hard to find love. It is so hard to find love. I'm getting married in November. It took me a long time to find it. Why would I want to deny that to anybody else?

NEARY: All right. Thanks, Lisa.

LISA: Thank you.

NEARY: OK. Bruce, are you heartened to hear that kind of response?

STEELE: I am. And she chokes me up a little, I have to say. But at the same time, you know, some of the biggest supporters of marriage equality that I know are also straight people. In fact, one of my co-workers here just bristles at the notion that marriage equality is a long way off in North Carolina. And she - I think she takes more moral offense at it than I do, perhaps because I've been covering the story for 18 years, and I'm used to it. But yeah, I think that straight people can be quite as morally offended at the institutional discrimination as the gay people that it directly affects.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get one more call in. Jacquelyn(ph) is calling from Oklahoma. Hi, Jacquelyn.

JACQUELYN: Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JACQUELYN: Yeah. I'm also from Oklahoma, and I can resonate with your caller from Tulsa. I am engaged to be married, and I probably won't - obviously, I won't get married-married in Oklahoma. We plan to have a wedding here in Oklahoma, and everybody is calling it a ceremony and all kinds of things, and I just keep saying it's a wedding because that's what it is. But we've talked about, you know, going somewhere else - like now New York, or Washington, D.C. - where we can actually, you know, get a legal marriage.

NEARY: So you are considering doing that even though that would then be, sort of, ceremonial in the sense that it wouldn't have any effect back in Oklahoma?

JACQUELYN: We, actually, are planning to probably move away from Oklahoma. My partner is from Tennessee and so that's not exactly an accepting state, either. And so we're planning to move from here partially for our careers - not that we, you know, don't love it here. We've met so many people who are accepting. In our little neighborhood, we're actually surrounded by a lot of gay couples, and it's not in a largely gay community. I just think that people look around in their neighborhoods, they are probably going to find gay couples.

NEARY: All right.

JACQUELYN: There's just a lot of support here in Oklahoma City. Last - this past weekend was Gay Pride, and there were thousands and thousands of people - and a lot of them straight people. People like your past caller are just so important to the gay-rights movement.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Jacquelyn.

JACQUELYN: Thank you.

NEARY: And thanks for joining us, Bruce Steele. Bruce Steele's op-ed, "Reflecting on Marriage Milestones," ran in The Advocate. There's a link on our site, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Again, thanks for joining us, Bruce.

STEELE: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: He joined us on the phone from Asheville, North Carolina. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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