HUCK meets members of the North Carolina LGBT community who are campaigning for their marriage rights through love and empathy.
“We will have an inevitable increase in children born out of wedlock, an increase in fatherlessness, a resulting increase in female and child poverty, and a higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.” – Vote For Marriage NC
Earlier this year, the people of North Carolina became embroiled in an ideological battle over same-sex marriage, and messages like this, thought to be relegated to the dark ages, became commonplace. ‘Pro marriage’ websites, like voteformarriagenc.com, threw up pictures of nuclear families – mom, dad, two precociously perfect kids – to hammer home their ‘God-given’ point. Marriage is crucial, their tagline infers, provided it’s defined as ‘One man. One woman.’ Rallies, demonstrations and heated debates charged the air with tension as friends and families all joined in the fray.
How did this kick off? Well, here’s the short version. In the fall of 2010, voters in North Carolina ushered in a new era of Republican-controlled legislature. For the first time in 140 years, Republicans had the upper hand and they used their advantage to push for a change to the state’s constitution. A proposal to restrict ‘domestic legal union’ solely to marriage between ‘one man and one woman’, known as Amendment One, passed both the House and the Senate in September 2011. By the spring of 2012, the voters of North Carolina approved the amendment, with a sixty-one per cent majority.
To be clear, Amendment One does not alter the legality of same-sex marriage in North Carolina — gay marriage is already illegal. You may well ask, if same-sex marriage is illegal to begin with, why vote to make it extra illegal? Is gay marriage some kind of poisonous corpse, a zombie that has to be repeatedly bludgeoned lest the undead rise again?
Opponents of gay marriage are worried that law alone is not enough to ensure that same-sex marriage never becomes a reality – new legislators can be voted in, laws can be changed, and courts can find laws to be unconstitutional. This isn’t how state government usually works — in fact, the last constitution amendment was passed in 1875, for the eerily similar purpose of banning marriage between ‘a white person and a negro’.
Fortunately, not everyone in the South equates gay marriage with the zombie apocalypse. The Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) is just one organisation railing against state-sanctioned prejudice – or as executive director Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferarra puts it, “the level of discrimination enshrined in state laws and constitutions across the South”. Their recent WE DO Campaign saw same-sex couples descending on courthouses across the state demanding to be married. As Rev. Beach-Ferarra explains it: “LGBT couples apply for – and are denied – marriage licenses in their hometowns in order to directly resist discriminatory state laws and call for full equality under federal law.” Compelling footage of the campaign went viral, garnering national attention and an audience with President Obama.
CSE calls this ‘empathic resistance’; it requires activists to be empathetic to those who oppose gay rights. Rev. Beach-Ferarra says the approach draws “on ethical frameworks that have informed earlier civil rights efforts. It also asks us to devote concerted effort and attention to the ethics of our actions and speech.” With a focus on openness, positivity and compassion, the aim is to transform conflict into dialogue.
Right now, Amendment One is in effect, but the consequences are still unclear. And it’s not just same-sex couples in the firing line. Thanks to the amendment’s loose wording, all unmarried couples – gay or straight – could be denied certain legal rights, including protection from domestic violence or benefits for their kids. The battle now moves to the court systems, where judges will have to interpret individual cases in light of this constitutional change. As for whether Amendment One stands as a legitimate opinion poll is also unclear: is sixty-one per cent of North Carolina against gay marriage? Did people understand what they were voting for?
To some people, it may be just a slip of paper, but for these three North Carolina couples, Amendment One is very real.
Betsy & Shuli
“You wanna do your puzzle before dinner, Goose?” Shuli Archer coos to her eighteen-month-old son, Milo. The baby looks up at his ‘Moo-mama’ while his other mother, Betsy Archer, rinses beans for dinner. Shuli and Milo have just finished feeding the cat, Chicken. It’s clear that Shuli savours this time with her baby boy, who she sees less of since starting a full-time teaching job. Betsy is the stay-at-home mom. After years in social work, she is focusing on her art and co-authoring a book for queer non-gestational mothers.
Betsy and Shuli move around each other with the ease born of a sixteen-year relationship. They live in an apartment above Betsy’s parents’ garage, and a settled contentment permeates the cosy space. It’s an atmosphere the couple had trouble foreseeing when they moved to North Carolina a year ago. “I would just cry to Betsy and say I cannot live here if that amendment passes,” remembers Shuli.
The two were happy in Massachusetts, where they lived for a decade and were married just days after same-sex marriage was legalised in 2004. But when their son was born, they were faced with a difficult choice: move to the South so that Milo can grow up knowing his grandparents, or live far from family but with their civil rights intact. “The anger was that we, as a queer family, are forced to give up something no matter where we live,” explains Betsy. “It was the same conversation over and over and over again… whether to stay or go.”
Although they chose to move to North Carolina, the proposal of Amendment One made them question their decision. “It was more than just legal rights,” says Shuli. “Before, I felt like I could move more easily in the world, like going to the grocery store. Here, I don’t feel that same freedom.” The vitriol that bubbled to the surface in the lead-up to the vote exacerbated the stress of adjusting to a new city. “I just felt very isolated and alone,” says Shuli. “But finding the Campaign for Southern Equality, seeing all these people doing all this work and having a really positive attitude about it [was a turning point].”
Betsy and Shuli got involved with CSE: they joined other couples at the courthouse for the WE DO Campaign, and the monthly dinners helped soothe their feelings of alienation. At first, Betsy felt that staying in North Carolina meant facing the enemy, but CSE showed her that “stand and spread your love is more what it’s about”. She explains: “Jasmine is such a dynamic leader. She’s never wavered in the really firm belief that we will have marriage equality and it will happen at a federal level. For me, I needed that.”
A week before the Amendment One vote, Betsy had an opportunity to practise the positive approach espoused by CSE. In the locker room after a water aerobics class, she reminded everyone to vote – not one way or the other, simply to vote. One woman pointed out that Betsy probably wouldn’t agree with her stance – ‘I have to vote according to my religion,’ she said. “In that moment I was like, ‘I have two choices here: I can rip her anew… or I can just introduce myself,’” says Betsy, “That was all that I could do, is say, ‘This is who I am, just see me.’”
When the amendment passed, the couple was disappointed, but it was nothing like the devastation Shuli predicted. There is a grace that comes with their decision to raise their family in North Carolina, and work to change the local culture rather than escape it. Three days after the passage of Amendment One, Betsy and Shuli returned to the courthouse for another, more symbolic protest. “The WE DO Campaign helped trigger a shift from ‘I think we’ll be okay here’ to ‘We could actually have a really happy life here,’” says Shuli.
Although Betsy and Milo receive health insurance through Shuli’s workplace, they pay an additional $115 a month because they are taxed differently to straight couples. When Milo has siblings birthed by Shuli, Betsy won’t be able to adopt the children and share legal parental rights. Betsy can get custody, provided she sues Shuli. If Shuli passed away, she can stipulate in her will that Betsy have guardianship of Milo. “But that’s not a legally binding request, it’s just a suggestion,” explains Betsy. “So there would be no guarantee that I would actually have rights to my child, the child that we created together.”
Despite their frustration, the couple is settling into a future in North Carolina. Reflecting on their journey, Shuli remarks, “I do feel that there’s a… softening of the edges. The sun is coming out a little bit.”
Sascha & Tuesday
“We’re one of those classic ‘opposites attract’ couples,” smiles Tuesday Feral, sharing a love seat with his partner, Sascha Sass. Tuesday talks openly about studying for a psychology degree, his job as a nanny and the possibility of going to seminary to become a minister. Sascha, with feline circumspection, speaks of her punk band, protest culture, train-hopping youth and burgeoning interest in paganism. Both are transgender, but in opposite manifestations. And yet this day-and-night couple has found happiness together for the past three years.
On the surface, there appears little reason for a couple like Tuesday and Sascha to invest in the Amendment One fight. “Because our IDs say different things [about our sex], technically speaking we could get married,” says Tuesday. Despite their unusual position, Sascha broke a habitual non-voting streak to vote against Amendment One. “The legal rights to get married have never felt super important to me,” she explains. “[But] it could be a slippery slope for other things that oppress queer people.”
The trans-community appears to be a movement on the fringe of a fringe. In North Carolina, and the majority of other states, it’s not illegal to discriminate against trans-individuals in employment, housing and education. “Anybody should be able to marry whoever they want to, but it doesn’t seem as important to me as some basic civil rights,” says Tuesday. “I mean, I guess that is a basic civil right, but there are some even more basic ones.” Sascha agrees: “I have had long stretches of unemployment just because it is so hard.”
According to the website for the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU), only sixteen of fifty states have laws banning gender identity discrimination, and antiquated laws prohibiting cross-dressing fuel police harassment of trans-individuals. Sascha, who is “super introverted,” says stories and stats like this make daily life a struggle: “I already have all this weird social anxiety and it’s just compounded by being trans.”
Tuesday, on the other hand, takes a different tack. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, he’s seen how persuasive the act of testifying can be. So, instead of preaching the word of God, he uses his people skills to be a “gender-fluid missionary”. He explains: “I just smile at people and act like there is no elephant in the room until I see that they are safe.”
Because the issues for transgenders are somewhat unique from the gay community at large, one approach is to create a safe space away from society, rather than try to reshape mainstream America. Within these havens, says Sascha, “I don’t have to worry that some stranger is trying to figure out what set of genitals I have.” Not all trans-individuals are trying to ‘pass’ as the opposite sex, but this gender fluidity can be hard for our primitive reptile brains to process. “I get stared at a lot,” says Sascha. “Safe space is so important for me. I’ve spent the majority of my life never feeling safe, and not feeling safe in my own body.”
Sascha and Tuesday want to create their own space in North Carolina, “an environment where young queers and young trans-folks can actually come and learn about themselves,” says Tuesday. Why not just move somewhere more accepting? “The South is also mine,” says Tuesday, smiling, “and I know the South may not want me, but the reality is I’m a product of the South.”
Despite being treated like an outsider in his own home, Tuesday tries to understand the roots of the opposition he and Sascha face. “I think people are just acting out of fear when they’re doing things that are potentially hurting me – they’re fearful of losing something themselves by allowing someone else to have something. I know that humans are capable of change when they’re presented with education.”
Monroe & Lupe
A scene of domesticity greets us at the Perez-Moore household. Monroe is trimming the hedges that lead to their three-storey home in a tucked-away neighbourhood in West Asheville. He gives a tour of the cleverly outfitted rooms they rent out via AirBnB.com, along with the garden, chicken coop and honeybee hives. Lupe, Monroe’s partner of twenty-three years, shares stories from his work at a hospice, and his aspirations to become a minister. Catching sight of the time, he excuses himself and dashes off to pick up the girls – eleven-year-old Maria and eight-year-old Beatrice – from an after-school activity. Chickens cluck in the yard while Oliver, six, dangles his feet from an armchair and plays on the laptop. An open Bible takes pride of place on a bookstand; children’s art lines the walls. It’s the perfect portrait of a happy family, except for one unsettling fact: North Carolina doesn’t believe they’re a family.
But family they are, although it hasn’t always been easy. With two dads, one white and one Hispanic, and three African-American children, being in the public eye has been a learning process, for them and society at large. “We speak of it as clowns on parade,” Monroe explains, “just people staring.” While American culture is changing rapidly and has grown more comfortable with diverse families in the past decade, so too have Monroe and Lupe grown more accustomed to, and unconcerned by, the looks of strangers. “If we’re making an impact just by being there, that’s great for them,” Monroe pauses and smiles, “but I got three kids, and I’ve got enough to do.”
It’s a big step for a couple that kissed in public for the first time at their wedding altar, in 2007. The couple was married in church in sight of their children, family and friends, in a ceremony that carried personal significance, but was not recognised as a legal marriage. Monroe remembers, “Within a year of us going out, I referred to him as my roommate. It appalls me that I did that, but that’s where I was.”
Shaking off their fears and reservations, Monroe and Lupe took part in CSE’s WE DO Campaign, the same week that Amendment One was proposed. “We took our kids with us, and they watched us take an action [requesting to be married] and be denied,” explains Monroe. “It was a very liberating experience.”
When asked whether they were concerned Amendment One may impact their family, Lupe shrugs and replies, “No.” Why fight then? “I changed my children’s lives,” says Monroe. “I showed them that in order to make a difference in the world you have to stand up, even though it’s uncomfortable and society may tell you don’t do it.” It’s a lesson his children have taken to heart. After their experience with the WE DO Campaign, Maria gave a presentation at her school about her parents being denied a marriage license, quoting the nation’s founding documents that ‘all men are created equal’.
And yet, the situation is more tenable for them than most. After the passage of Amendment One, Lupe’s employer confirmed that it would continue to honour the healthcare benefits afforded domestic partnerships. Due to the more progressive laws of Pennsylvania – where Lupe and Monroe adopted all three children at birth from the same mother – both men are listed as parents on the birth certificates. But without marriage and other legal protections, Monroe is extra cautious. “I carry copies of birth certificates in my wallet, so that I can say ‘No, I actually am this child’s parent,’” he says.
One of the most striking things about Monroe and Lupe is their capacity for compassion and acceptance towards the people who have voted to deny them their rights. “As much as folks are trying to understand us, we’re praying that we understand them too,” explains Lupe, “just increasing our capacity for compassion that way, as much as we hope it comes our way.” Monroe comments on the need for a new language, a shift from a culture of tolerance to compassion. “Love me or don’t love me, just don’t tolerate me,” he says. “I don’t want to be tolerated – I want to be loved, I think we all want to be loved.” Lupe – his husband, in every sense of the word but one – rounds things off by adding: “Us being together for twenty-three years is about love, and us having children, raising them the way we are, is about love.”