My father called: Gays, marriage and the evolving black perspective
My father called me last week following the two days of U.S. Supreme Court testimony. He was upset with Justice Roberts for suggesting that perhaps the federal government had no role in this marriage business. “They know what they need to do,” my father said, “because the did it before.”
My father recalled how as a young GI returning from England with his British bride he was limited in the number of bases where he could be stationed. It was assumed that my biracial mother was a white woman married to a black airman and that took the South off the table in 1958.
“Unequal marriage laws were the reason you and your older brothers were born in Maine,” my father told me. It was a simple statement of fact and it banged into my heart sideways. It had never occurred to me and even now I can’t pinpoint the cause of the peculiar disorientation his words left me with.
Father relates Jim Crow to marriage equality struggle
This prejudice, that still existed when I was born in 1965, was costly to the military. My father had top clearances, but couldn’t move to where his background would have been best suited. He was one of countless GIs who married overseas and he joked that they had dubbed the bases where these international couples were clustered as the “Little UN.”
My father is a perfect barometer for our country’s shift on equal rights when it comes to marriage. He has experienced first hand the cruel Jim Crow system. He’s seen the villainous racism that drove his father out of Mississippi to Staten Island. My grandfather was unwilling to teach his children not to make eye contact with white people and knew the South was not safe for an unbroken spirit. That my father, who struggled with the fact that I am gay when I came out decades ago, sees this clear corollary is telling about how far that understanding has travelled in America.
Now, as we await a Supreme Court decision, lawyers ponder what an end to a federal DOMA will mean state by state. Some suggest that those of us who live in states with constitutional bans may still be denied key federal protections. In Florida, gay couples married elsewhere, but living in Florida, will still be prevented from accessing many federal benefits according to National Center for Lesbian Rights attorney Shannon Minter. For example, if I wanted to take time off of work to take care for my ill spouse, the state law banning gays from marriage would block my access to the Federal Family Medical Leave Act.
Working to make Florida a fairer state
I grew up in Florida. It has been my home since third grade. I can’t tell you anything from memory about Maine and I’m sure I don’t pronounce Bangor correctly. I am a southerner from the Florida panhandle and I’ve spent my entire adult life working to make this state a safe place for me, people like me and now for my wife and child.
And it is better than it was when I was a child when the homophobic slurs I heard came as often from adults as from students in my school. And better than it was in 1997 when we formed Equality Florida and only four cities had any legal protections at all. It is better today in many ways but I am impatient for change, for full equality because I have to think about my child and my spouse and know that we have done all we can to protect each other.
I have never considered leaving Florida. Not even after six out of ten Floridians voted to deny my marriage in 2008. I’m grateful to those who fought before me to carve out the ground I’ve stood on to fight for equal rights. But I find myself less patient for change now.
Becoming a parent inspires fight for rights
Perhaps it is being a parent. My wife gave birth to our son in Burlington, Vermont, the same city we were married in. It meant that my name would be on the birth certificate and that when we took the extra precaution of having me legally adopt my son, Vermont would not treat me like a stranger. I do not want another 15 years to pass to celebrate scattered victories.
As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m aware that some will make the decision to leave Florida when DOMA falls or will decide not to move here to begin with. I feel called to do my part while I hold one of the batons. But I know I’ll have to explain to my son one day that, “Unequal marriage laws were the reason you were born in Vermont.”
Nadine Smith is the founding executive director for Equality Florida, the largest statewide LGBT advocacy group in Florida, and has worked in progressive movements for more than 20 years.