Looking at a U.S. map in 2014 of marriage equality states – where same-sex couples can legally get married – is remarkably similar to the divide between the North and the South in 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War. Legality of gay marriage is not comparable to the devastation of human lives through slavery, but in both cases, examples abound of harm to innocent lives because laws exclude their families.
Lesbian and gay residents of Massachusetts are fortunate in that, even before it became the first state to legally recognize marriage equality, same-sex parents could legally adopt children together. The contrast is vast with what happens in states where the laws are different regarding gay marriage.
For example, two Louisiana men – Nick Van Sickels and Andrew Bond – were legally wed in Washington, D.C. They adopted a baby girl, but only one parent can be listed on her birth certificate, preventing any legal rights to the other. Although they are raising her together, every year they are required to complete paperwork whereby one partner relinquishes rights on the decisions for the child’s education and healthcare. The repercussions of such actions are demoralizing for both members of the couple, as well as their child, when she is old enough to understand.
Another Louisiana example is that of Dale Liuzza, a gay man who raised his son together with his partner, but when his ex-partner left with the child after their relationship dissolved, he could do nothing to stop him. And he no longer had access to the boy he raised. Since in Louisiana second-parent adoption is illegal, as is marriage equality, Dale cannot legally challenge his partner’s action. More than 2 million children nationwide are being brought up by LGBT parents and face risks of hardship similar to those that Dale is experiencing.
Political leaders in the South claim that they must uphold the laws of the Constitution. Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) defends the illegality of gay marriage, saying that to debate such laws constitutes an attack on freedom of religion.
For those LGBT couples who have married after many years without the rights and responsibilities of that legality, and for those who have children, the act of marriage is both a relief and incredulous. Federally, there are 1,138 benefits, rights and protections afforded to all couples who marry. For the majority of heterosexual couples, these are unnoticed and seamlessly weave into their lives. But for those who have lived without them, the reality comes as an unexpected and happy surprise. The list includes social security, tax on employer-provided health benefits, income tax credit on children, removal of estate tax and tax on retirement savings, family and medical leave, immigration law, employee benefits, COBRA, and many others.
Fifteen countries – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom – recognize same-sex marriage. Yet, the U.S., among developed nations, does not. Even though in June 2013 portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were overturned, if a state upholds the illegality of same-sex marriage, the unions of lesbian and gay couples living there will not be recognized. Such is the case of all of the states of the South.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), based in Alabama, was founded in 1971with the intention of carrying out civil rights for all. Since the mid-1970s, the SPLC has pioneered the rights, and served as an advocate for same-sex couples residing in the South. Their first case, known as Hoffman, was to challenge the decision against an Alabama resident Army service member who had married her partner and was subsequently discharged from duty. Although not every case that the SPLC fights is overturned, the resounding message is that, having an advocate is paramount for marriage equality to succeed. And, visibility normalizes gay marriage so that, in states such as Massachusetts where it has been the standard for a decade, a teenager’s response to seeing the map of marriage inequality is, “That’s sad.”