Gay Marriage: Progression or Digression?

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A federal judge ruled yesterday that California’s same sex marriage ban �" known as Proposition 8 - was unconstitutional. Gay marriage opponents have pledged to appeal the case and it is widely expected to end up before the Supreme Court. Bishop Yvette Flunder of Refuge Ministries in San Francisco, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of "That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation," offer their perspectives on the ruling and how it may affect the gay community.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a former U.S. Marine has been stuck in Egypt for months because he was placed on the U.S. government's no-fly list. He says he has no idea why he is on that list or any clear idea of how to get off the list. We'll talk to him, then get perspective from a former Homeland Security official for his view about whether the cost to individuals like our guest is worth it for the sake of national security. That's later.

But first, we want to talk more about yesterday's victory for supporters of same sex marriage. Yesterday, as you may have heard, a federal judge in California said that California's voter-approved ban on same sex marriage in that state, Proposition 8, is unconstitutional. The ruling was applauded by gay marriage advocates, including plaintiff Kristin Perry.

Ms. KRISTIN PERRY (Gay Marriage Advocate): Our family is just as loving, just as real and just as valid as everyone else's.

MARTIN: Gay marriage opponents meanwhile vowed to keep fighting.

Mr. RANDY THOMASSON (Campaign for Children and Families): The judge has imposed his own agenda upon the voters and the children and the parents of California.

MARTIN: That was Randy Thomasson with a group called the Campaign for Children and Families. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a researcher who says he can explain why Proposition 8 passed in the first place. And he says that much of the conventional wisdom around why Proposition 8 passed is wrong.

As for the judge's ruling, for now it had little practical impact. The judge has issued a temporary stay on his own ruling and we'll hear arguments on whether to make it permanent, pending an appeal. For now, the 18,000 same sex marriages that occurred before Proposition 8 was passed to remain legal, but no further marriages will be legally sanctioned.

There's a lot to talk about. So we found ourselves drawn to the perspectives of two Californians who've been with us before to talk about same sex marriage. Bishop Yvette Flunder leads Refuge Ministries in San Francisco. She's been a vocal supporter of gay marriage. She is herself married to her longtime partner and has joined other same sex couples in marriage. She's with us on the phone.

With a different viewpoint, we've also got with us, once again, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of "That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation." She joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE (Author, "That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation"): Thanks so much. It's great to be here.

Bishop YVETTE FLUNDER (Refuge Ministries, San Francisco): Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Bishop, I'm going to start with you. You were married to your wife Shirley before Prop 8 passed, so your marriage has remained legal. But I still would like to ask how you reacted when you heard about the judge's ruling.

Bishop FLUNDER: Well, I had the sense of the joy of incremental victories. And so, like, what happened, I believe, in Reconstruction Era for African-Americans. And bit by bit, case by case, you know, opportunity by opportunity we're getting closer and closer to a shift in the social norm and a shift in the change of attitude in acceptance and hopefully, very soon, celebration of families being other than defined by a man and a wife.

MARTIN: Now, you don't sound as ecstatic as I thought you would be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Bishop FLUNDER: Well, it's not that I'm not ecstatic, it's just that I think that I am pragmatic, thoughtful. I'm watching how this is happening. I'm very glad that California turned around. You know, I'm aware that there's going to be some continued fights. It's certainly not over. There's more to do. And then we have several other states that have to be impacted. My hope is that what happened in California will give us some forward momentum in other states so that this will become history very soon.

MARTIN: Okay. So, Mattilda, let's bring you in. And just for clarity for those who hadn't heard our prior conversation, you were born a biological male, but you prefer she. If I understand it, part of your strategy for resisting assimilation, if I have that right. Okay, fair enough?

Ms. SYCAMORE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Okay. So you have said that you think that the gay marriage fight is the wrong fight for right now. Why is that?

Ms. SYCAMORE: Well, I think what we can see, you know, is that the focus of the gay movement is so centered around marriage to the exclusion of everything else. So what I think we should be fighting for is universal access to the basic needs that marriage can sometimes help provide. So things like housing and health care and the benefits of citizenship, you know, the right to stay in this country or leave if you want to, you know, love or, you know, all of these things should be accessible to everyone. And that's what we should be fighting for.

And, unfortunately, with the fight over Proposition 8, we can see so many resources. I mean that was the most expensive ballot measure in the history of California. You know, $20 million spent on each side and so many resources are, you know, put into this marriage movement, to the exclusion of everything else.

And so you see cuts to, you know, funding to HIV/AIDS services, transgender health care, housing for homeless youth, sex education or any education, really. You know, drug treatment, senior advocacy. Everything that benefits the people who are most vulnerable, that's what I think we should be fighting for.

MARTIN: Now, Bishop Flunder, what about Mattilda's argument here. That in fact this focus on gay marriages closes as many doors as it opens. What do you say to that?

Bishop FLUNDER: Well, I, you know, absolutely agree with Mattilda's concept that universal access to health care and all of the other issues that were listed up in her comment should be available to all citizens. And we're not polar on that issue. What I do believe, however, as it relates to same gender marriage is that it not be considered in any way a requirement, but a right.

People that choose not to be married don't have to be. Churches that choose not to solemnize those marriages don't have to do it. But same gender couples have a right to have access to marriage and access to all of the rights and privileges that are included in marriage as it stands now. I think that the ultimate goal is that those rights and privileges are given to everyone regardless to whether they are married or not. But that is not our current reality.

So, again, our freedoms are coming incrementally. We are moving through this issue by issue, state by state. And while we are moving through it, what is happening simultaneously is the minds of people are shifting and changing. And that's not something that can happen abruptly, you know what I mean?

MARTIN: Sure.

Bishop FLUNDER: It happens over a period of time.

MARTIN: Mattilda, what about that point that bishop just made? That Judge Walker said in his decision the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same sex couples. So, in essence, I think the judge is establishing that gay and straight should be equal but not necessarily alike. Do you buy that?

Ms. MATTILDA: Well, the problem I think with the gay marriage movement is that, you know, there is that rhetoric, I think, about saying, well, we're going to start with marriage and then we're going to get to everything else. But, unfortunately, it's become such a single issue movement that really excludes everything else. And I think it does come at the cost of everything else.

I mean I would love to think that, oh, you know, marriage is going to start everything else. But the rhetoric of the movement is all about, oh, you know, we finally - I mean it's great to hear Bishop Flunder express something else, but I think the rhetoric of the movement in general is that, you know, we finally, you know, have reached full equality.

You know, now we can you even hear people say, like, once we get marriage, we can close down, you know, the movement. You know, things like that which are just so horrifying to me.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting, though, that gay marriage opponents have argued that expanding the definition of marriage opens the door to the normalization of other types of unions like plural marriage, for example. I mean the argument has been made, well, if two men or two women can get married, why can't three or four? And indeed there are people in this country still do practice plural marriage.

But for people who do believe in these alternate relationship types, you know, Bishop Flunder, I guess this is a question for you, why isn't it reasonable to leave, in fact, you're just normalizing something which other people may want to something apart from what other people want to participate in? And you are in fact narrowing the range of experience that becomes acceptable. What do you say to that?

Bishop FLUNDER: Well, I think that this is a wonderful and powerful opportunity for the entire country and in some ways the whole human family to be educated on the fact that, first of all, a marriage is not a binary construct in the ways in which folks have just defined it. Essentially what I'm saying is we need some more education and understanding.

This is not just a conversation about marriages either between a man and a woman or a woman and woman or a man and a man. There are many different ways that families identify. And there are many different ways that people identify. And most of the people in our country have no real working conversation about gender identification and sexual orientation.

And they know zip about the intersex community. They know so little and they are sort of stuck on either you're straight or you're gay. Either you're for the male and female marriage or you're for the same gender marriage. But there are so many different areas between and around all of that that define human sexuality and gender identification and family. And this is a great moment for education in our country to talk about this.

MARTIN: All right, let me ask...

Bishop FLUNDER: Terribly important.

MARTIN: Let me ask Mattilda a final we have about a minute left what about that? Is there anything are you celebrating anything?

Ms. SYCAMORE: Well, I'm not celebrating anything today. I don't think there is a reason to celebrate. I do agree with Bishop Flunder that there are so many different ways that people create family and love and commitment, you know, on our own terms. And I think what this gay marriage movement does is it limits those options. So what if you want, you know, all of our partners should have health care.

You know, everyone who we love and, you know, have commitment with should have a place to live, should have food on the table, should have, you know, an ability to express their sexuality and their gender identity in the ways that they want. We shouldn't be, you know, narrowing the options by relying on this state sanctioned institution that over the years, I mean, you know, is a failure.

MARTIN: All right, bishop, you got the first word so Mattilda got the last word. Obviously, more to talk about and a rich topic. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is author of "That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation." Her latest book is a novel, "So Many Ways to Sleep Badly." And we were also joined by Bishop Yvette Flunder of Refuge Ministries in San Francisco. She is herself in a same sex marriage in California and is celebrating today. And I thank you both for speaking with us.

Ms. SYCAMORE: Thank you so much. It was a great conversation.

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