The evening of Nov. 4, 2008, was exhilarating. I stood with thousands of people in San Francisco celebrating the election of this country’s first African-American president. The emotion I felt overwhelmed me with a sense of justice, pride and redemption.
The next morning I felt devastated because I woke up to the news that 52 percent of California voters decided to ban same-sex marriage. Of the 6 million ballots cast for Barack Obama, 2 million of them also voted to write discrimination into the state constitution. And for the first time in California’s history, the constitution was amended to curtail rights instead of expand them.
I went to San Francisco the week before Election Day to work against the ban on same-sex marriage. Working with hundreds of dedicated staff and volunteers, I know we laid the groundwork for equality by introducing our families to thousands of Californians. I also know that most of the voters who cast ballots for the ban did not do so with malice, but it is hard for me to not take this vote personally.
As I write this, I am angry and sad because my partner, my best friend and the love of my life Emily and I were married on June 20, 2008, in San Francisco.
This is why all of those 5.5 million votes were personal. That was my marriage that was voted on. That was my family that was judged as less than. And it was the marriages of 18,000 other newlyweds in California, and the thousands more that did not get married in time, but always wanted to one day.
Gay people spend their lives battling claims that when they live openly and honestly it is an “alternative lifestyle.” Battling statements like “I do not think you are less than me, but I just don’t think you should be able to get married to the person you love.” Imagine strangers having the power to not let you marry the one person you want to spend your life with.
And yes, being married feels different. The difference is visceral. Emily and I took the same vows as everyone else. I have never been more committed to anything in my life than to Emily and our marriage. Marriage is a status that drives this country – it touches things like taxes, insurance and Social Security. Emily and I have to have separate insurance, cannot share each other’s Social Security and must check “single” when filling out forms.
No one gets to choose who they fall in love with. Not me and not you. And that is why we should not vote on other people’s marriages.
History has taught us that we should not vote on rights. The California Supreme Court did not create rights for my family – the court simply recognized what already existed. Emily and I share our experience with others because we know that the more people who meet us, the less likely they will cast a vote denying our right to participate fully in society.
I know that this country is moving in the right direction. It is clear by the number of pro-equality legislators who were elected this past Tuesday. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., once said to me that you know a marginalized group is making progress when the government starts to treat them hypocritically. This hypocrisy exists today when states create civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay people, but reserve marriage for heterosexuals. Fairness is proclaimed with a remedy that is separate and unequal.
But we will reach equality one day. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
We as a nation have already made progress bending that arch by electing Barack Obama on Nov. 4 – but let’s not forget that there is plenty of work left undone.
The writer is a second-year GW Law School student, McCleary Law Fellow at the Human Rights Campaign, and former field organizer with Equality Maryland and MassEquality in Boston.