Personal rights come before gay marriages

Casey Jenkins

Why have gay rights organizations chosen to devote so many resources to the fight for gay marriage?

Marriage was not always the main issue for the gay movement. Only in the past 10 years has it come to dominate gay politics. This, no doubt, is due in part to the media’s fascination with the topic. Religious political extremists also have fanned the flames, using gay marriage as a scare tactic to rally people to their homophobic causes.

Outside of the legal benefits exclusive to marriage, I personally do not see the point in two gay people getting married. If the gay community feels we need the institution of marriage to make our relationships legitimate, then we still have a long way to go in feeling comfortable about ourselves.

That is not to say that we should not have the rights and benefits associated with marriage, like tax advantages, inheritance rights and survivorship benefits. We should. To deny rights to anyone, straight or gay, because they are not married is not fair.

Marriage is a state institution, recognized on the federal level only through a complex infrastructure of nearly 1,000 supporting laws. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996 in response to the specter of gay marriage, attempts to limit the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, which requires states to respect each others’ official acts, like court decisions and marriage licenses.

DOMA federalizes the institution of marriage, something virtually unprecedented in the relationship between the states and the national government. DOMA is probably unconstitutional — Congress cannot limit full faith and credit all by itself — though it is likely to be years, if ever, before the Supreme Court is given an opportunity to see it that way.

Given this state of affairs, we need to establish a solid foundation for individual homosexual rights before we can even approach the issue of our rights as couples.

Gay rights actually remain far from secure in this country.

Consider the right to military service. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been a disaster; queers are being discharged from the military in the same appalling numbers as before the policy. By denying us the right to serve in our own military, we are being denied one of the basic tenets of citizenship.

More damning is the fact that we remain criminals in 16 states under archaic sodomy laws, with the Supreme Court’s 1986 approval in Bowers v. Hardwick.

We cannot hope to gain rights as couples if laws denying us rights as individuals remain on the books.

Extension to gay couples of the rights our society has made exclusive to marriage seems reasonable, although I don’t think that’s likely until we have a Supreme Court willing to apply fundamental constitutional principles to what remains an uncomfortable issue for too many people.

Within the gay community, however, focus should return to ensuring individual equality by tackling “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and sodomy laws so that the courts have no legal justification for denying rights to couples.