Equality and Judicial Ignorance

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” These are the famous words of former Alabama Governor George Wallace during his inaugural speech in 1963. On June 11th of that year, Wallace himself blocked a door to prevent African American students from registering at the University of Alabama. President Kennedy then sent federal troops to enforce federal law and the governor grudgingly stepped aside. Since 1963, Black students have attended the University of Alabama an every other school in the country along White students, and what do you know? The sky hasn’t fallen.

It’s worth looking back at those shameful events in US history because once again, Alabama is next up in our current generation’s civil rights fight. Full equality for LGBT citizens is on the line and gay marriage is the new hotly debated issue. Once again, a federal judge has issued a ruling for equality that is causing great consternation. District Judge Callie V.S. Grande issued a ruling that called the state’s prohibition against same sex marriage unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, thus allowing Judge Grande’s order to stand. Alabama would now start issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, right? Not so fast.

Enter state supreme court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore. Justice Moore issued an order to Alabama’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Apparently, Justice Moore believes that the state of Alabama has no obligation to follow the order of a federal judge. In response, some of the state’s probate judges have decided to simply stop issuing any marriage licenses. Talk about acting like petulant children rather than supposedly highly educated legal minds. Their actions scream, “If I can’t keep gays from marrying, then nobody is getting married!”

Even George Wallace didn’t decide to just close all the schools in Alabama if he had to let Black students in. The states rights crowd loves to use this anti-federal government rallying cry whenever they find a law they think offends their religious sensibilities (read bigotry). Justice Moore states emphatically that judges need not enforce laws that violate the state constitution or state law. Unfortunately, they need reminded time and again about United States law. See, our founding fathers totally understood that there would be disagreements and squabbles from time to time between states, so they told us how to handle that. Article VI of the US Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, dictates that federal law is the “supreme law of the land”. This means, sir, that when laws conflict, federal trumps state, meaning the federal judge outranks you, dude.

As much as I’d love to see National Guard troops standing at the door of an Alabama courthouse enforcing the rights of same-sex couples, it looks like that won’t be necessary. Thankfully, there are judges in the state who understand the US Constitution, and have begun issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. Kudos to those wise justices who have decided to be on the right side of history. As for Chief Justice Moore, the people of Alabama have shown him the door before, and should do so again at the ballot box. I don’t think the citizens of Alabama want their state to be seen as the symbol of bigotry yet again. Maybe someone will write a song supporting tolerance this time. Something like: I hope Judge Moore will remember, fair-minded folks don’t need him around anyhow.

Peace~LM

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American Heroes

I’ve written before about my experience serving in the pre-DADT military, and the status of lesbian & gay service members has continued to be cause near and dear to my heart. In the days before & during DADT, the military was a less-than-welcoming place for LGBT service members. Those who served lived with the constant fear of “outing” and investigation, arrest, courts martial, and sometimes even physical attack. In every case, discovery meant certain expulsion from the military, regardless of one’s record of service or ability, and the less-than-honorable discharge would become a proverbial scarlet letter, affecting employment and one’s standing in the community forever.

For those who remained in the military, the ever-present fear kept them firmly entrenched in the closet, unable to speak openly or acknowledge their own families in public. I wrote a short story a few years back about a lesbian soldier whose partner endured the indignities of military send-offs and welcome home ceremonies that never allowed for the emotional connections or public displays of affection afforded to their straight counterparts. One didn’t risk a kiss or tender touch, let alone expect to be treated with the same dignity as other military spouses upon your wife or husband’s death. That was just the way it was.

Then history shifted. DADT was repealed in 2011, but standing federal law still prevented recognition of LGBT patriots’ families. Just before DOMA fell in 2013, I received a letter from an Army National Guard Sergeant, who had read my first novel about a lesbian serving in the military. AJ had already completed a tour of duty in Iraq, and was preparing for yet another deployment to Afghanistan with her unit. We struck up an email correspondence in the ensuing months, comparing notes on the military’s progress and the progress still needed. She shared her fears that her family wouldn’t be taken care of should something happen to her, because marriage still hadn’t been possible prior to her deployment. It angered and saddened me to hear her story, knowing there were so many others like AJ, serving our country in the midst of a war zone, yet still unable to quite find that elusive security for their families.  

 DOMA was struck down while AJ was deployed. Soon afterward, policies were revised that would protect military families. More states repealed their laws to either allow same-sex marriage or to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. This month, Virginia became the latest state to recognize other state’s marriages. Virginia. That just happens to be AJ’s home state. Her Guard Unit hails from the Commonwealth of Virginia and they were leaving Afghanistan any day. The symbolism was something I couldn’t ignore. Sometimes fate is pretty cool. But expressions of love are profound.

1960320_581351918619000_935343532_nOn Saturday, The 1710th Transportation Company arrived home in Virginia to the cheers of their loved ones. Facebook was flooded with joyous and loving pictures of many reunions, with one that stuck out like a beacon in the night. In the crowd stood a woman proudly holding up a large hand-made sign that said: “My wife is MY American Hero.” She stood there among the other wives and husbands without fear or reservation of any kind because this was her right, to stand there beaming with pride, awaiting her soldier. Her wife. The image and its significance brought tears to my eyes. Catie’s one simple act of love and devotion. A brilliant testament to a human victory finally won.

The march of equality moves on. Welcome home to all our American Heroes.

Indeed.

Thanks for reading. Peace~ LM

 

Equal at Last

Nearly thirteen years ago, in July 2001, our police department lost the first female and openly lesbian officer in the line of duty. Lois had served the Tampa Police Department for nineteen years, and her partner was a sixteen-year veteran officer. In the aftermath of the shooting, it was soon painfully apparent how differently the surviving spouse of a lesbian officer would be treated. The lesbian and gay officers gathered downtown at the police memorial the night of the shooting, understanding instinctively the impact of this tragedy. I recall the media officer at the time pulling me aside and asking how they should treat Lois’s partner. I took a deep breath and said, “Like any other widow of a fallen officer.” His question was sincere, and I will say that our department tried to handle things well. We all knew benefits weren’t in place, but to witness the reality of our common vulnerability before the funeral even took place was heartbreaking. The problem was LGBT officers had no recognition, so she was at the mercy of others’ biases. And it mattered.

An effort began with the LGBT police officers and civilian personnel to fix the injustices that we watched unfold. With the assistance of Equality FL, our statewide LGBT advocacy group, we met with city leaders, union, and pension representatives. At every turn, the answer was they’d like to help, but state law prevented more action. Lois’s partner did not receive the survivor’s pension benefits afforded to every other fallen officer’s spouse. We wondered, how could this stand?

Soon after, compromises were negotiated, but none ever gave LGBT officers the peace of mind of full coverage and protections for their families. Thirteen years have passed. Now and then the issue of our relationship status has been raised with our labor and pension reps. Always their answer was the excuse “state law”. Every year, as a sort of act of civil disobedience, I would write the word “spouse” next to Sandy’s name on my evaluation’s personal contact form. Just because it was right. Each year we watched hopefully as other states began giving LGBT couples the right to marry or enter into domestic partnerships, validating their status.

In 2009, Sandy and I decided we wanted permanent, legal recognition of our relationship. We discussed DP, but decided that we wanted a marriage, in hopes eventually it would be recognized. Upon returning to Tampa we took our marriage certificate to the pension office and told them to place it in our files. I never wanted the city to be able to say “it wasn’t what I intended”, as they had Mickey. We continued with our careers.

Then, yesterday, out of the blue, something amazing happened. A good friend called to say that our pension attorney had written a legal opinion, based upon changes in federal laws, stating LGBT officers should be covered fully if they hold valid marriage licenses, from any state. I was stunned. I called our new union president for confirmation and he obtained a copy of the brief. He told me it was true. According to the brief, we would now be covered fully by our pension, to include line of duty deaths. I went to the pension office to ensure our files were updated. The secretary pulled Sandy’s file, and mine, paging through to locate the marriage certificate from 2009. She moved the certificates to the top of our files. Then she looked up at me and said something I’ll never forget: “I’m sorry you had to wait this long to hear this, but congratulations.”

Something inside me lifted. I couldn’t put a finger on it at first, but then last night, I called my wife when I got home from my shift. She still had four hours to go in hers. I said, “Be careful. I love you.”, like always. When I hung up, it hit me. I now had the peace of mind I’d never had in over 20 years of our relationship. Should one of us fall in the line of duty, the other would be taken care of. I realized that for the first time I truly felt like a full-fledged member of the Tampa Police Department. Equal at last.

Peace and thanks for reading~

LM

Equality lessons for the next generation

My good friend, Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida, wrote a piece last week on race and same sex marriage discrimination in her own lifetime. It’s a great look at the historical parallels of our current struggle for full equality regarding same sex marriage in this country. Like the issue of interracial marriage, these battles will now be waged state by state, until one day we are finally rid of the issue for good. But that’s going to take time.

Nadine’s article brought to mind my youngest sister’s family. She is married to a fine man, who happens to be bi-racial, so my niece and nephew include African-American in their ethnic heritage. I was thinking today about how to talk to them about the historic Supreme Court decisions of this past week. I want them to have a sense of how truly important the rulings are to me, their aunts, personally, not in just some abstract “oh, that’s cool” kind of way. I will tell them that less than a generation ago, their own parent’s marriage would have been illegal in many states, just as mine is today.

 I won’t let this pass without the teaching lesson, because on a basic level, I want them to understand that matters of equality are always tremendously important. As Nelson Mandela stated, “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” In our current age, where history and civics are increasingly squeezed out in budget cuts, or simply re-written to fit the politics of the time, it has never been more important to understand the gravity of civil rights victories. We are always better as a country when the rights of all are protected equally.

I’ll share my experiences with the younger members in my family. The way it hurts me when people who say they are my friends—or even my own family—remain silent when laws are passed to take away my rights, whether as a woman or a lesbian. I want them to understand that nothing is more important than one’s own personal integrity. Standing up for the truth is right, even if it makes someone else uncomfortable, or you unpopular. One of my other friends, who is a lesbian, is fond of telling me that I shouldn’t “push” people. When it comes to our relationships, people can know, but they don’t necessarily want to know. She wonders why I can’t stay quiet and live my life. I guess that means using vague language and omission in an attempt to avoid making people uncomfortable. I don’t get that. I’m not getting in everyone’s face every day, but I feel it’s important to be authentic and own who I am openly.

Even though 37 states in this country still disrespect my marriage and deny my right to exist as a married person, I will still introduce Sandy as my wife—regardless of who asks me. It’s the truth. When the children in my family ask me if Sandy and I are married, of course I say yes. They need to see that truth and integrity, not waffling. To do anything less shames Sandy, me, our relationship, and sends a message to the outside world that I agree we’re not worthy. I don’t agree.

So, it’s my hope that all of our children will learn about the day the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as a pivotal moment in American history, as a lesson in equality and human dignity. And maybe my nieces and nephews will  remember the way we were able to talk openly about fairness and love. Most of all, I hope they’ll live in a world where this debate seems foreign and arcane, and love and commitments are celebrated always. But, as Nadine says, part of the conversation will always be, “That’s why Aunt Sandy and I were married in Massachusetts.”

Check out Nadine’s fabulous writing at the Grio or at Equality Florida.

Peace and Happy Pride~ LM

Religious defiance, thank God!

I’m a Christian and I’m perplexed. Can somebody please explain to me why folks who profess to believe in the teachings of Jesus are forever bastardizing his message?

Our most recent example of faith-based hypocrisy comes today from a story about a father who loves his son and simply wants to support his son completely. The Reverend Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, a minister of the United Methodist Church, was asked by his son to officiate his wedding. What an awesome thing, right? Right! Except that his son was marrying a man. Uh, oh. Dr. Olgletree says that his son’s request inspired him and he readily accepted. Two of the reverend’s children are gay, and he loves and accepts them unconditionally. His daughter previously married her partner in a non-Methodist ceremony. 

Rev. Olgletree conducted the ceremony for his son back in October, and no doubt, it was a joyous family occasion. Then, one of the reverend’s fellow ministers saw the wedding announcement in the newspaper, and apparently felt it his sacred duty to tattle on Rev. Ogletree to the local bishop. Rev. Randall C. Paige and several other ministers object to Rev. Ogletree’s actions, citing violations of canonical law. They say the ceremony “is a chargeable offense under the rules of the church” and that breaking the laws are not the proper way to bring about change.

Really? Umm… Jesus broke the laws of his lifetime by renouncing Old Testament teachings publicly, throwing the money lenders out of the temple, cavorting with known prostitutes, pretty much thumbing his nose at much of the religious doctrine of the day, and the list goes on. Seems like he thought that breaking the law was exactly the way to bring about change at times. Unjust laws meant to demonize or marginalize minority groups are always overturned by acts of civil disobedience, because morally unjust laws cannot and should not stand. So, how is it that these religious scholars would assert that breaking the rules is not the way to affect change? Guess they skipped those parts of the New Testament. The complaining reverends say that Rev. Olgetree’s actions injure the church because they “foster confusion about what the church stands for.” Shouldn’t the church be standing for love, honesty, family, and stuff like that?

The Rev. Olgletree is awe-inspiring. “Sometimes, when what is officially the law is wrong, you try to get the law changed,” he said. “But if you can’t, you break it.” He challenged Rev. Paige, saying, “Dr. King broke the law, Jesus of Nazareth broke the law…So you mean you should never break the law, no matter how unjust it is?” I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the premise our great country was founded upon, and I hope we never lose that belief in standing up for “right” over “law”. Rules and laws are made in given periods of time, based upon the knowledge folks have to work with. But, we evolve. We grow. We change.

These changes come largely through interacting with people who may be different than ourselves. That’s why I always say that we change hearts and minds one person at a time. The good reverend understands the teachings of Christianity call us to be loving and compassionate toward one another, not judgmental or hateful. When we open our hearts to the lives and love of others, we cannot help but grow. That’s the human experience. The reverend, only wanting to fully participate in his son’s marriage, as any parent would, unwittingly became a symbol of religious defiance. He said, “I actually wasn’t thinking of it as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.”

Amen, reverend.

Vote Equality

Same-sex marriage is on the ballot in four states today. Thirty-two times before voters have cast ballots on the question of marriage equality throughout this country, and thirty-two times we have lost.  But this is the first time that the question has been on the ballot since the repeal of DADT and the president going on record as saying that lesbian and gay couples should have equal rights. Now, I know that some of you will still say that the president’s initial position was to endorse civil unions but not gay marriage. That is true. But you know what? I don’t care. The fact is that he came around and endorsed our right to marry, and that is huge. I’ve had people in my life tell me that getting to know Sandy and me has changed their opinion on same-sex marriage. That’s a good thing. Changing hearts is important.

So, here we are on yet another election day. I hope all of the marriage equality ballot measures are successful. The country is moving in the direction of equality, much to the consternation of the religious right. Try as they might, as with all civil rights issues before, truth, love, and equality will prevail. Those of you in Maryland, Minnesota, Maine, and Washington should know that we are all with you in spirit. In Maryland the marriage equality initiative seems solid, with a 9 or 10 point lead. Maine’s marriage referendum looks like it has the votes, with a 13-point lead. Washington has the brightest outlook, with a 54 to 38% lead among likely voters. Minnesota’s question is a gay marriage-banning proposal, or to put it more honestly, the conservatives want to enshrine inequality into the Minnesota constitution.

What all of these initiatives have in common is this: The people have the power to choose equality. And if you’re a lesbian or gay citizen in those states, or the friend or family member of a lesbian or gay American, it’s your duty to get out and vote. There is no room for apathy, folks. I hear so many of my friends saying, “Oh, I don’t like politics,” or some other lame excuse for inaction. If you don’t look out for your own self-interest, how can you expect others to do so? Friends, this is how our country works. Democracy is a privilege and a duty. Today, this duty couldn’t be more important, not only in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, but everywhere in this country. If you care about equality, get out and vote. It’s imperative. Your quality of life depends on it.

The gains made for equality are fragile, and we’ve seen what can happen when we allow those who stand against us to frame the message. The stakes for those of you with marriage equality on the ballot are high and the implications for the rest of the country are huge. Momentum builds, change takes hold, and equality eventually wins. History bears this out. Get out the vote. Tell your family and friends. Let them know this is personal. Make your voice heard for equality. This is your moment.

Vote.

Amazing Times

Hi gang! Hope you all are well this week. Whew! We’re halfway through August already, and what a busy month it’s been. The Olympics have wrapped up, and they were brilliant! So, I thought today we’d chat about some of the important LGBT news I’ve seen over the past week or so. I see these smaller victories as hope for the future of our LGBT community and all Americans.

We’ll lead off with military news, since most of you know I’m a veteran of the US Army. Last week the Army announced the first openly lesbian woman was appointed to the rank of Brigadier General. Hoo-ya! Who would have ever thought that would possible so soon after the fall of DADT? Then, I read an article in the September issue of Curve Magazine, with an interview of a lesbian Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. Sergeant Patterson is quick to point out that “…the military is still not exactly a gay-friendly environment.” And, “Anti-gay slurs are pretty constant…” Also, we’ll note that the end of DADT has nothing to do with Equal Opportunity Policy in the military, which still doesn’t include discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Sadly, even the general still isn’t fully protected. But the fact that she’s a lesbian didn’t prevent her promotion, and that, my friends, is progress.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about big corporations on either side of the equality divide, and praised Amazon and General Mills for their pro-equality stances. Well, I’ve been hearing a lot about KFC and McDonald’s coming out in support of the Chick-Fil-A position. Well, it turns out that the “proof” of those corporations solidarity with anti-equality are highly exaggerated; in fact, they are false. The marquee signs in question were fabricated on a website called Fast Food Sign Generator. Turns out KFC and McDonalds like equality just fine. And the newest edition to the growing corporate voice for equality list is REI. REI’s CEO, Sally Jewell, released her pro-equality stance on the company’s blog this month. My favorite toy store loves me back! Sweet!

LGBT youth scored a victory in Marion County, FL. Last May a couple of students at Vanguard High School requested permission to form a Gay-Straight Alliance Club. The principal denied the students request, saying he “wasn’t comfortable with a club based on sexual orientation on his campus.” On Thursday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the teens, citing violation of the Equal Access Act, as well as the students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It’s a shame that once again a lawsuit has to be filed in order for kids to form a school club. The good news is that the school board relented on Monday, and the kids can have their GSA. Awesome. Check it out, if you want.

In political news, there were significant gains for LGBT candidates. How’s this for a headline from the Advocate.com: “Gay Candidate Wins Where Anita Bryant Once Roamed”. That’s right, voters in Miami Beach elected their first-ever openly gay candidate for state legislature, David Richardson. Also, here in Florida, Orlando elected an openly gay representative, Joe Saunders. In Wisconsin, Democrats chose openly gay Rep. Mark Pocan to succeed Rep. Tammy Baldwin (also an out lesbian), who is running for Senate this November. If elected, Rep. Baldwin will become the first openly lesbian US Senator. Go, Tammy!

While we still have work to do, all of these stories are more proof that momentum is building, and the march of equality is unstoppable. We have to keep the message alive in whatever way we can. All of theses stories above have underlying political consequences and it truly matters what choices we make at the ballot box. As Rep. Baldwin tells us, “If you’re not in a room, the conversation is about you. If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you.”

Let’s all join in the conversation. It matters.

Thanks for reading ~LM