Marriage as a civil right in the US | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 23.06.2013
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Marriage as a civil right in the US

With change sweeping across the United States as more states recognize same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court is poised to rule on two landmark cases this month. DW talks to some of those affected in San Francisco.

San Francisco, of course, was a hotbed in the struggle for lesbian and gay liberation during the 1970s and beyond. And it's showing its true colors once again.

In the Castro district, likely the largest gay neighborhood in the United States, a huge, colorful rainbow flag waves through the air - a symbol of gay pride. That pride is founded, among other things, in the homosexual liberation movement that took flight here decades ago.

Now, in 2013, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community - a now common designation that more aptly reflects those concerned - is again fighting for its rights. This time, for the right to marry someone of the same sex. But the movement doesn't have the vigor it had 40 years ago.

Cat Stevans is an event manager at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. She's disappointed that so few from the community are active in fighting for same-sex marriage.

"I think that the LGBT community is a lot more active in other issues than in same-sex marriage," she said. "The Castro, and San Francisco in general, were places of incredible change. But now, other projects here get a lot more attention than same-sex marriage."

Equal rights for homosexuals

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney Copyright: Gero Schließ/DW

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney are married and living in San Francisco

John Lewis, a lawyer, and Stuart Gaffney, a health manager, have been together for the past 26 years. They met for the first time at a party in the Castro, and now live in a sleepy San Francisco suburb. They married in 2004.

"I'll never forget the moment we married," said John. "We felt a sense of transformation and understood right then that it was the first time in our lives that our government was granting the same rights to us as for others."

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney have married twice - without having divorced in-between. These bizarre circumstances reflect the legal uncertainties reigning at the moment.

In 2004, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples who requested them. Thousands of couples across the country, including John and Stuart, grabbed the opportunity. But then, the State of California placed a ban on the practice. The marriages, however, remained valid - at least, in California.

In June 2008, following a ruling by the California Supreme Court, same-sex marriage was granted again. John and Stuart married a second time. But in November 2008, this window of opportunity closed once more as an initiative by conservative forces gained momentum: Proposition 8 found a majority - thus overturning recognition of same-sex marriages. The state constitutional amendment thereafter restricted the recognition of marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Rollercoaster ride

John is still shocked when he thinks about all the back and forth regarding this essential issue.

"It's the first time in history that a fundamental right was taken away from a group again," he said. "The proponents of Proposition 8 focused their efforts solely on gays and lesbians, and took away this fundamental liberty to marry whom we want."

Major uncertainty

Drexel Bradshaw. Copyright: Gero Schließ/DW

Drexel Bradshaw sees same-sex couples still facing legal uncertainty

Attorney Drexel Bradshaw specializes in domestic partnership agreements, or civil partnerships, as they're known in Germany. Such partnership agreements are also open to heterosexual couples, but they deny the couples - like in Germany - important rights, in tax and adoption areas, for instance.

Bradshaw's analysis of the legal situation is rather pessimistic. Same-sex couples in the United States face a great deal of legal uncertainty, given diverse state legislative procedures and the varying court rulings. "They do not know if their marriage will be recognized if they have to move to another state for a job, whether tax breaks will apply to spouses, or what will happen in the event of their death," Bradshaw noted. "And that's because, to this day, there is no uniform national ruling on same-sex marriage."

Up before the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court in Washington is to issue rulings this coming week on two landmark cases: one, involving the constitutionality of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act that bars the federal government from recognizing state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; and on Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban. At the same time, an amazing transformation is sweeping the country: more and more states are recognizing same-sex marriages. In May alone, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware legalized them. Currently, 12 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.

According to recent surveys, the majority of Americans also support same-sex marriage. More and more politicians, even conservative ones, are likewise voicing their support. So it seems that Americans are generally reconsidering how their fellow, homosexual citizens should be treated.

A change in mentality

But it's unlikely that the Supreme Court judges will allow themselves to be influenced by this change in mentality. Experts, such as Drexel Bradshaw, believe it's more likely that the court will opt to respect state legislative procedures.

John and Stuart, like many others, would be disappointed by such a decision. They consider the right to marry a fundamental human right which is indivisible among people, whether of different nations or different sexual orientation.

Reverend Roland Stringfellow Copyright: Gero Schließ/DW

Reverend Roland Stringfellow has married many same-sex couples

That goes without saying for Reverend Roland Stringfellow, who has already married many same-sex couples. Stringfellow is clearly at peace with himself, his community and his parish, the First Congressional Church of Oakland. As a gay pastor, he initially had to face a great deal of resistance.

It may strike some as odd that it's gay and lesbian couples who are celebrating the traditionally conservative values of the church in their struggle for gaining same-sex marriage rights. But Stringfellow, who deliberately opened up his parish to such couples, isn't surprised.

"A religious ceremony has a great deal of symbolic value for the couples," he said. "And I would like to ensure that they are esteemed in their families, by God, by our church community and the community at large. You can see the pride and joy in the eyes of these couples, and I do hope I will be able to marry many more same-sex couples."

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