As Americans across the country celebrate Freedom to Marry Day today, seizing the opportunity to have conversations with family members, friends, and coworkers about the importance of ending same-sex couples' exclusion from marriage, hopefully they'll talk a lot about gay couples and why marriage matters -- without saying "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage." Same-sex couples, their kids and loved ones, and those of us who favor equal justice in America are not working to win "gay marriage." We are working to win the freedom to marry, ending the current unfair denial of marriage to those who are already doing the work of marriage in their own lives.
Phrases such as "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" imply that same-sex couples are asking for something other than marriage. They imply that same-sex couples deserve something different or lesser than the security, protections, safety-net, and respect that married couples cherish. (PDF) And they play into the right-wing's fear-mongering that gay people are a threat to marriage, that equality and inclusion would somehow unacceptably "redefine" the law (in a country dedicated to those very values), and that "Defense of Marriage" is the answer to committed couples seeking to participate in a precious institution.
Marriage is not defined by who is excluded from it, and gay people are not the first to challenge its denial. This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first court ruling striking down race restrictions on who could marry whom. In Perez v. Sharp, the California Supreme Court held that "the essence of the right to marry is freedom to join in marriage with the person of one's choice." The court explained that "human beings are bereft of worth and dignity by a doctrine that would make them as interchangeable as trains"; when you are denied the freedom to marry the person precious and irreplaceable to you, it's not like you can just catch the next one.
Fittingly, as we mark the 60th anniversary of that courageous court decision, other couples now stand before the same court which will hear argument on March 4, 2008. Those couples are not seeking "gay marriage," any more than Mrs. Perez sought "black marriage," or her husband sought "Latino marriage." They all claim, and deserve, marriage itself, the freedom to marry, which the U.S Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, noted "has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men."
As we speak out about why marriage matters and how the denial of marriage harms couples and kids, undermining our nation's commitment to fairness and freedom, we've seen states move in the right direction, but falling short of equality. States such as California, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont have created new legal mechanisms, called partnership or civil union, to provide parallel legal protections and responsibilities for gay people and their families. These new mechanisms - "gay marriage" - are better than nothing, but no substitute for marriage itself (PDF). Happily, in each of these states the debate continues and awareness is deepening that the work is not done, civil unions don't work, separate is not equal, and it's time to finish the job of ending exclusion from marriage, not just repackaging it.
Even without clear terminology always prevailing, people are getting it. Public support for marriage equality is growing faster than ever before. In just over 10 years, according to the Gallup poll, support for marriage equality has jumped almost 20 percentage points, while those against fairness decreased 15 percentage points in the same time period. Imagine the rate of progress we could see if people understood this not as creating "gay marriage," but, rather, ending the denial of the "freedom to marry" and letting couples committed to one another in life share the legal commitment of marriage.
Freedom to Marry Day, February 12th, aptly falls in the midst of Freedom to Marry Week, February 10-16. It's one more chance for gay and non-gay people to reach out to their circles - families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow citizens -- and make the ask that moves people to action. Freedom to Marry Week is held every year, right around President Lincoln's Birthday and Valentine's Day, and Freedom to Marry provides tools and ideas (PDF) to help everyone find a way to connect and make a difference.
Much as we want people to understand that the words gay and marriage do belong together, we don't want "gay marriage." It's the freedom to marry that matters - for all of us - and the way to secure it is by talking to others. And it's the personal ask - each one of us raising our voice and not just assuming that those around us are there, or can't get there - that makes all the difference. Turn to the people in your life now, and say, "Happy Freedom to Marry Week!"