How to Obtain and Preserve Marriage Equality

By Andy Vo

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage.

Not because I’ve found true love, but because more and more countries have considered marriage equality in the second half of 2016. Last month, Gibraltar unanimously passed a bill recognizing marriage equality. Taiwan may become the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage as early as next year.

More often than not, though, marriage equality has reached stumbling blocks this fall, in Australia, Mexico, and even the United States, where the Republican Party released a platform calling for the overturning of marriage equality before winning both the Presidency and control of Congress earlier this month.

Three weeks ago, the LGBTQ Caucus at the Kennedy School held a panel called “What Worked for Marriage Equality And What’s Next for Inclusive Policymaking?”, inspired partly by classes on human rights strategy. While it may appear that the tide turned quickly for marriage equality, the fight was won based on decades of work by activists and advocates. Drawing from my experience in these contexts, I offer my insights on how to obtain and preserve marriage equality below:

EDUCATE

  • Common values and humanity resonate across differences – Allies may never know what it is like to be discriminated against, or what it would be like to be in a “gay” marriage. But there are common values in a term like marriage “equality,” and there is common humanity in the language of “love.” Communication is key in this regard. American activists did well to change the vocabulary of their campaign. Taiwanese activists may achieve same-sex marriage after LGBTQ Pride organizers highlighted the tragic death of a gay professor and his partner and appealed to public sympathy. Common values do the work of preserving rights, resisting attempts to dehumanize LGBTQ people, and strengthening the resolve to protect LGBTQ rights in perpetuity.
  • Coming out en masse paves the way for marriage equality – Conventional wisdom suggests that if you know someone who is queer, you’ll be more likely to support marriage equality. This corresponds with human rights pedagogy on activating a moveable middle, a portion of the population willing to be convinced to change their opinion on an issue. Still, coming out remains a complicated and difficult prospect for many members of the LGBTQ community. Those who feel more comfortable coming out can contribute to deconstructing the stigma that surrounds the process, and—in doing so—pave the way for greater human rights gains.
  • Human rights: Marriage equality is an issue in which fundamental human rights are at stake. In many countries, marriage is key to accessing a range of other rights, such as housing, social security, and healthcare. Bans on same-sex marriage stigmatize LGBTQ relationships, perpetuating discrimination and even violence against the LGBTQ community. Greater awareness and education surrounding human rights will empower LGBTQ communities, activists and advocates to bend the arc of the moral universe closer to justice.

AGITATE

  • Hold government accountable to its promises – Encourage government officials to take a stance on human rights and hold them to their commitments. Support from national leaders is not sufficient, but it is certainly helpful for the cause. Even more helpful is appealing to national responsibilities beyond the platform of a single leader: what does the Constitution say about LGBTQ rights? Laws are highly dependent on context and culture. To that end, civil society has the power to influence culture and societal norms, while government has the immense power to re-evaluate laws within a contemporary context, legitimizing the work of civil society in a court of law.
  • Take up space (town halls, phone calls, forums) – Advocates for marriage equality must take up space both literally and figuratively. The streets have been the traditional setting for human rights activism, and numbers tell meaningful stories: Taiwan’s LGBTQ pride parade numbered 80,000 this year, while Mexico’s protests against same-sex marriage drew tens of thousands as well. Figuratively, citizens must take up space in the minds of their delegates. Much of the pressure against same-sex marriage in Taiwan comes from opponents who claim to speak on behalf of a silent majority “against all evidence,” according to one observer. Representatives are under constant pressure from their constituents to take certain stances; an agitated and unified coalition goes a long way in making demands for human rights.

ORGANIZE

  • Construct a national campaign – Much like Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy, human rights activists must build a national campaign around their cause. A national strategy builds momentum and changes the culture so that gains in human rights cannot be lost once acquired. This was true of the United States, which legalized same-sex marriage in 38 states before recognizing marriage equality nationwide through a Supreme Court ruling. This was true of Ireland, where activists rallied young voters, overseas Irish, and voters via social media to become the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, with 42 of 43 parliamentary constituencies voting in favor and 62% turnout. This may also be true of Taiwan, which began offering symbolic recognition of same-sex marriages in its largest cities, Kaoshiung and Taipei, and are (hopefully) spreading their message across the island. This is not an easy task, and difficult conversations will be had. But no matter how it is passed, whether through judicial, legislative, or constitutional means, national buy-in is vital for the initial win and ultimate preservation of marriage equality.
  • Organize around moments and stories – While activists must work over decades to build the foundation for success, sometimes victory is catalyzed by a specific moment in time. Ireland’s LGBTQ community saw an opportunity for change after the Fine Gael-Labour government took office in 2011 and organized a constitutional convention. Taiwan’s LGBTQ community is expressing outrage after the death of a French professor who had been distraught at being unable to make critical medical decisions for his partner of 35 years or take ownership of the home they shared. In these moments, advocates do well to highlight stories—personal testimonies from celebrities, politicians, and everyday citizens. People often find empathy in human stories, not abstract concepts.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly recognizes the right of “men and women” to marry and found a family, I believe international law must expand its reach to all individuals, adapting to new social mores and norms. Banning same-sex marriage can (and I believe, should) be considered a violation of due process and equality of all citizens under the law, as it was in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion on Obergefell v. Hodges.

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