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Culhane: A gay rights travelogue

I’ve been on a vacation with the family for the past couple of weeks, and our path has led us through the magical wonderland of Gay Marriage Laws.  Here are some thoughts on our experiences, in a state-by-state travelogue style:

It begins, as ever, in my home state of Pennsylvania. Leaving Philadelphia for the vast Plain of Inequality that is the remainder of the state often makes me wish that we were living in somewhere else. We have no state-wide laws that offer even the most basic protections: no anti-discrimination law; no hate crimes law (well, we did have one – until it was declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court); and certainly no relationship recognition. In fact, our biggest “triumph” has been in keeping the law against marriage equality from going to the voters in order to be converted into a constitutional amendment.

There is, though, joint adoption for same-sex couples. In our lives, that’s the most important legal right. But the state is shameful, overall.

When we finally wriggled out of the hours-long traffic snarl that held us captive in the Keystone State for far too long, we emerged in the legal paradise called…

New York: We’re now in that one-month period between enactment of the marriage equality law and its full implementation, and there’s a blanketing buzz that covered us everywhere.

I was especially struck by my reaction to an early exchange. We spent our first night in Syracuse, where we were “entitled” to a complimentary breakfast. As we ate, I sensed that the older, “traditional” couple at the next table were discussing us, and I was relieved when they got up and left.

A few minutes later, though, the woman came up to our table, leaned over and said: “You have a nice family.”

After I’d mumbled a thank-you and she’d shuffled off, I said to David: “And the next feeding will be at noon.” I do sometimes feel like an exhibit at a zoo when I hear this kind of comment, however well-intentioned.

This time, though, I had a second – and much more positive – reaction. What if she was one of the many New Yorkers who’d supported marriage equality and was heartened to see it passed? Maybe this was her way of being supportive. Under the circumstances, I felt charitably inclined.

Our travels through Republican-dominated Western New York continued to buoy me, and ultimately to convince me that there really is no chance that the state will go back on its fresh commitment to equality. Just a couple of telling examples:

David’s cousin is married to one of the most conservative people I know. We’ve bored and chased away scores of relatives with our animated debates about health care (to which he does not believe there’s a basic right), social welfare, and the like. Yet he was fully supportive of the recent legislation. He’s also in Senator Mark Grisanti’s district. Grisanti, remember, was not only one of four Republicans to vote for the bill, but he had openly “evolved” on the issue – turning away from his campaign pledge to vote against any such measure.

My erstwhile adversary said that people understood the Senator’s change of view, and believed him when he talked about the need to separate his religious from his civil duties. Would the switch cost him reelection? Probably not, thought this rock-ribbed Republican.

Meanwhile, the Niagara Gazette was running front-page stories about how the beleagured City of Niagara Falls was planning a major advertising campaign to get same-sex couples to plan their honeymoon visits there. I couldn’t find any trace of nay-saying in any of the pieces: The deal is done, and now – in the true American spirit – folks are trying to figure out how to make a buck from it.

I’ve rarely been happier to be in the state where I was born. But of course even New York lags behind…

Canada. Last Sunday, we headed across the Rainbow Bridge – everything’s gay! – to that other Niagara Falls, and then across Ontario. We hugged the northern shore of Lake Erie on our way to visit friends in Chicago. (BTW, if you ever get the chance to visit Pelee National Park, do it.)

By now, Canada has had marriage equality for so (comparatively) long that the only squabbles take place at the periphery: For example, how much (if any) accommodation should be made for religious belief?

And this ho-hum approach is what I most noted. Sometimes I tend to think that all Canadians are serious folks who have read (and maybe even understood) the logical positivists.  But several instances of comedic incompetence by people in the service industry put an end to that fallacy. They’re not brighter, more serious, or better educated than we are. But they know unfairness when it’s in front of them, and set about to fixing it.

After that, it was a vertiginous descent through anti-gay purgatory. We came across through Windsor, Ontario into Detroit. We then darted across Michigan, a state so anti-gay that its supreme court was compelled to hold that its “marriage protection” law disabled the state from offering benefits to the partners of its gay and lesbian employers.

We then careered through Indiana, just nicking the northernmost, and most dismal, part of the state. They legislature just passed an anti-equality amendment along to the voters. It will probably pass. Let’s get out of this state.

I’m writing this column from Illinois, staying with friends whose family resembles our own to an eerie degree – two dads, twin girls. Civil unions came to the state recently, and our friends added that legal cement to their seventeen-year relationship last month. It’s not marriage, and they still wear their rings on their right hands in protest of their continued second-class citizenship.  But it’s not bad.

My takeaway from this polyglot of rules and statuses is that it’s just not sustainable. You can’t be married in half the states you drive through, but not in the others. It might take awhile to get this sorted out, but eventually we’re going to get there. Meanwhile, I need to find a way to parachute into friendly states without driving through these other places.

John Culhane teaches in the areas of family law, public health law, and torts at the Widener University School of Law. His new book, Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Perspective, is now available in various e-book formats.

  1. hot501s
    July 15th, 2011 at 10:19 | #1

    Great travelogue! But I think you meant “across Ontario,” not “across Ottawa,” which is a few hundred miles from where you were.

  2. July 15th, 2011 at 10:41 | #2

    Indiana to its credit, did hold off repeated efforts over the years to pass a marriage discrimination amendment. Unfortunately, Indiana has a GOP governor Mitch Daniel who believes in one man, one woman and who is likely to sign this piece of garbage into law should it come to his desk for signing, which might be likely.
    He is a courteous and polite man, (I have written to him) but thankfully one less in the anti-gay GOP US presidential list of contenders after he dropped out of the presidential race.

  3. rusty44
    July 15th, 2011 at 10:54 | #3

    When is somebody going to file a class action suit based on the Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution?

  4. July 15th, 2011 at 11:47 | #4

    I remember before marriage equality passed in New York I was talking to the steamboat company in Lake george about having our wedding there and they told me not to worry they don’t discriminate. LOVES IT!!!

  5. dr_hf
    July 15th, 2011 at 12:48 | #5

    Used to be that every time my wife and I crossed the NY-Connecticut border we would cheer ‘We now have equal rights!’ and on the way back lament ‘We no longer have equal rights!’. Now we don’t have to do that – and although the ritual of our cheering was fun, I won’t miss it.

    Six down, forty-four to go.

  6. Jwb52z
    July 17th, 2011 at 22:30 | #6

    dr_hf, we do indeed have 44 to go, but there are a few, like my own state, who will have to be forced to allow gay marriage somehow. I also think it will come to actual fighting and bloodshed before it will be allowed where I live as zealots are so against it. I give it 200 years before my state would even consider changing without bloodshed and force.

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