Dear Judge Sutton,
Your opinion for the Sixth Circuit last week upholding four states' marriage bans echoed comments you made during oral arguments in the marriage equality cases suggesting that lesbians and gays would be better off winning their rights by gradual democratic persuasion rather than through the courts:
I would have thought the best way to get respect and dignity is through the democratic process, forcing one's neighbors, co-employees, friends to recognize that these marriages or this status deserves the same respect as the status in a heterosexual couple. So it's just funny to me why the democratic process, which seems to be going pretty well, [is not a better route than the courts].
Your ruling suggested that using the democratic process rather than the courts should make us feel respected and heroic. With that in mind, I would like to share with you my experience doing just that in 2012 when my state, Maryland, had marriage equality on the ballot.
As a gay man working at the polls on Election Day for the right to marry, I was not very surprised that a majority of my fellow Marylanders voted in favor of Question 6. Nor was I surprised by how empowered I felt at the polls, advocating for my rights.
What surprised me was the sense of degradation I felt simultaneously with that empowerment throughout the day as I spoke with voters.
My partner (and now husband) Rick and I had been fixtures in our neighborhood for many years. We were living a life that we could never have imagined when we were young: In our progressive Democratic neighborhood, we were just another couple, just like everyone else. It was (and is) a dream come true.
But unlike most of the other couples, we had not been able to get legally married. We'd had a beautiful Jewish wedding ceremony back in 2008, and we were married in the eyes of our families, our friends, and our faith. But not in the eyes of the law.
That is why Rick and I spent Election Day at the polls. And not just any poll, but our neighborhood precinct. We spoke with voters one at a time, asking them to vote for marriage equality, knowing that we were taking part in a historical civil rights election. We were part of history. It was amazing and wonderful and empowering.
I wasn't just handing out flyers and asking people to "vote for question 6, vote for marriage equality." I didn't want to approach people as an advocate and a stranger. I wanted to approach them as a neighbor who would be personally and profoundly affected by their vote on an issue that they mostly take for granted.
So I was handing out flyers and asking my neighbors to "vote for question 6 so Rick and I can get married like everyone else." Rick did the same with the people he spoke with. Many people told us they thought this was a very powerful and moving pitch.
What they couldn't tell -- and what surprised me immensely as I experienced it -- was just how degrading it was, more and more as the day wore on. In fact, it was one of the most degrading experiences of my entire life.
While Rick and I knew plenty of our neighbors, our friends and acquaintances were still only a small portion of the entire neighborhood. So we spent the entire day repeatedly smiling and asking complete strangers for permission to get married, hour after hour after hour, in the vast majority of cases not knowing how that individual would react. In most cases, people responded positively. Only a few times did a voter openly express hostility to Rick and me, but we had emotionally prepared ourselves for that.
But I hadn't prepared myself for how it would feel not just to advocate for marriage equality as a principle, but to ask my neighbors as they were entering the poll to decide my fate to do me the favor of giving me the civil rights they took for granted.
I hadn't prepared myself at all for how dehumanizing and degrading that would feel, despite my simultaneous sense of enthusiasm and empowerment, and despite the optimistic and friendly atmosphere at the poll.
As I read your judicial opinion, I remembered how I felt that day two years ago. While my experience is mine alone, I must tell you that asking people in my neighborhood to please let me get married did not engender the respect and dignity that you write about.
You'll just have to take my word for it. I hope you never have to experience it for yourself.