Amy Levin: Last Wednesday, June 15th, something historic happened…for the fourth time. The New York assembly approved the same-sex marriage bill, known as The Marriage Equality Act, which spearheaded a hopeful telos to allow same-sex couples to enjoy benefits and protections of marriage under state law. The New York Senate currently has 31 backers of the bill, including two Republicans, and is waiting for one more to pass the bill. Publicity of the bill has awoken a slumber of supporters and opponents alike, as many realize that among the five states that allow same-sex marriage, New York is by far the most populated, and hence, the most consequential for social change.
As long as we’re making history, it can’t hurt to be cautious of what is at stake when we narrate our steps to marriage equality in America. While opponents of same-sex marriage often fall under the categories of religious, conservative, Christian, and/or Republican, we should be careful not to turn a potential victory of marriage equality into a victory of secular liberalism over religious conservativism. To help delineate why, the work of political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry is quite useful. Featured in last month’s essay by Peter Montgomery at Religion Disptaches, Harris-Perry believes that “LGBT Advocates Need Public Progressive Faith.”
For those who think faith and LGBT communities live and breathe within antagonistic worlds, Harris-Perry argues that we should be thinking along lines quite opposite. Promoting LGBT issues under the umbrella of civil rights, Harris-Perry sees faith as engendering a particular power for social progress. “I believe that the struggle for equal human and civil rights for lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, same-sex-loving, gender-nonconforming and queer persons is the civil rights agenda of our time.” And, she said, “faith must be part of the work we’re doing.”
Urging for engagement with positive religious texts over oppressive parts of the bible, or “terror texts,” to achieve LGBT equality, Harris-Perry gives particular attention to marriage in her call for LGBT progressive faith. In her essay at The Nation, “Reflections on Marriage,” she draws on historical narratives of 19th century slave marriages to examine the intersection between the personal and the political in marriage economies. “Enslaved people desired marriage, performed marriage ceremonies, and understood themselves as married, but without the protection of the state their marriages could be disrupted without their consent. They fought back, resisted, and sacrificed in order to stay married, but without the state they were vulnerable both as persons and as spouses.”
What’s the connection to faith? According to Harris-Perry, African American slaves rejected slave-supporting scriptures used against them, and instead believed in a liberation theology that interpreted “God as an advocate for the oppressed.”
The fact that many couples today opt out of marriage because of its “troubling cultural mythology” and unjust economy even within heterosexual marriages means that the debate over same-sex marriage is about more than rings and wedding bells. “Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether.”
Harris-Perry has articulately asserted that this work cannot only involve secular humanists. If conservatives use religious scripture to argue against same-sex marriage, it is in the interest of all equal rights activists to set aside a repugnance for faith and look to its mobilizing and imaginative possibilities, and as Harris Perry argues, “provide an alternate metric to the world.” The rise of interfaith clergy members supporting same-sex marriage, the increased visibility of LGBT faith communities, and subsiding anxieties concerning homosexuality within churches are just the beginning. As the marriage debate seems to be fostering a small, but nascent cooperation between democrats and conservatives, we might as well try to depolarize the secular-religious waters as well.