Last week, Mayor Francis Slay made a bold statement, calling on Missouri to follow suit. He loosely referenced that in Illinois the sky has not fallen, it is in fact still blue and the grass is still green. And right now, admittedly, that grass is greener on the other side of the Mississippi River.

 

Civil Unions, while important, are only a step – a potentially vital step – in that evolution to full marriage. Please note that I make use of the term marriage to apply to both gay and straight couples. In the push for marriage equality, we’re not looking for something separate called ‘gay marriage’ or ‘same-sex marriage’. The goal is simply marriage. The LGBT community has wrestled for years with how to talk about marriage – even briefly trying to use the term ‘civil marriage’. Finally, after so much hand-wringing, Freedom to Marry, a well-organized national organization focused on providing support in States dealing with marriage initiatives, published a report showing that public support and opinion is coming around to the fact that we’re just looking for the same basic thing that every straight couple has available to them – plain ole’ basic marriage.

 

The Long Road to Marriage Equality in Missouri

 

There is no way to sugarcoat this. Marriage in Missouri is going to be an uphill battle in a tough state which will require multiple election cycles before we change the dynamics at play. In every state that has been able to move forward with any form of relationship recognition, the state had previously passed basic nondiscrimination policies covering protections in employment, housing and public accommodations.

 

There are a number of examples of this outside of just the states that have full marriage. These states have varying relationship recognition laws from Domestic Partnership laws to Civil Unions – effectively that in-between stage before marriage equality. Beyond Illinois, which passed nondiscrimination in 2006, you have California (1992), Delaware (2009),  Hawaii (1991), Maine (2005), Nevada (1999), New Jersey (1992), Oregon (2008), Washington (2006), Wisconsin (1982). Notice a trend? Many of these states have been on the radar, or will be, over the last 2-3 years in the marriage fight.

 

Within Missouri, we have been able to push for many of the basic stepping stones that lead to nondiscrimination protections covering both sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes introduction of the bill year over year (in Illinois, it took nearly 20 years) since 2000. Within the last two years we’ve been able to finally get hearings on the issue, make it to the floor and get a strong test vote on the issue. The vote was anticipated to be bad, 48 to 103, but this was anticipated in advance and we still wanted the vote. It opens conversations and provides a more intelligent roadmap to guide advocates. From the Executive level, Governor Nixon provided protections for state-level employees through an Executive Order last year. This, too, is a vital step in the process that signals more than ever, it is time for basic protections.

 

Even with this effort, we are likely still looking at 2-3 more years of work in order to pass a statewide nondiscrimination bill. That effort includes shoring up local level protections where we can. We now have local ordinances in Saint Louis, Kansas City, Jackson County (although limited), Kirksville (also limited), Columbia and University City. Shortly we will see movement to add gender identity in Columbia, expand Jackson County to include housing and public accommodations, and expect nondiscrimination protections even in Springfield. Closer to the metro region, with the passage of a Domestic Partner Registry in University City last month, we are seeing an increase in interest at an amazing pace.

 

While those local ordinances are limited in their scope, they create an atmosphere where the elected individuals representing these regions can feel more confident standing up for the statewide effort – whether they are Democrat or Republican. In addition to the major metropolitan regions, there has to be an increased level of outreach to the smaller metro regions where we know there are LGBT folks living, but there hasn’t been, at least historically, much of a structured community or even affirming organization.

 

With every outreach into these communities, a secondary benefit that helps us build towards some level of relationship recognition comes what is commonly referred to as “Voter ID’s.” This shouldn’t be confused with the Voter ID Bill that have been in the news that would require voters to bring a photo ID to the polls. This Voter ID concept helps us identify support throughout Missouri. We constantly see with other fights – whether it is around puppy mills or earnings tax – there is a divide between our metropolitan regions and the rural regions. In order to bridge that gap, we have to ID every potential supporter around the state – no matter where they live. This effort and our advances year over year set the stage for a competent and capable push for marriage.

 

Other Factors Impacting Marriage

 

No column addressing marriage would be complete without a brief review of the judicial efforts going on around the country. Within the last two weeks a major decision was handed down in the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the position of Judge Walker to state that marriage is a civil matter in the State of California and that it cannot deny that right based solely on sexual orientation. Many originally anticipated this case would go to the U.S. Supreme Court; however, the more likely scenario is that the case will effectively throw out the Proposition 8 vote in 2008, which effectively shut down marriage in California, and reinstate marriage for couples in California but not have an impact outside of the state.

 

In order to impact marriage around the country, then, we need to look to cases coming out of Massachusetts and Connecticut – respectively Gill vs. Office of Personnel Management and Petersen vs. Office of Personnel Management. Both of these cases go after a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which since 1996 has effectively suspended the equal protection clause of the US Constitution. Ironically, in a rare move, the Department of Justice has gone on record stating it believes DOMA to be unconstitutional. Despite this, the cases are still rife with questions regarding how state-based issues, particularly marriage and equal protection, are governed by the Constitution.

 

We will see these cases make it to the Supreme Court, but what’s frustrating is that in order for a case to get to the Supreme Court, it will take between 3-5 years.

 

So Where Does This Leave Us?

 

Obviously there is no shortage of work to be done. Calling, canvassing, building relationships and even the simple act of being out – in all aspects of your life where you feel safe – are vital parts of this process.

 

But when it comes to marriage, even in Missouri, I firmly believe it will happen. What makes our community so strong is that, even in the face of active governmental opposition to our relationships, we build them anyway. We meet, we fall in love, and we marry in an emotional and spiritual sense as much as any couple with an official state marriage license marries. And the fact that we still do all this, in spite of the obstacles in our path, means that we are on the right road to full equality, and that someday we will arrive safe at home.

 

A.J. Bockelman is Executive Director for PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy group. This bi-monthly column will explore the LGBT political world and he hopes that you will join him in that exploration. If you would like to provide feedback or get further information, feel free to contact him at AJBockelman@PROMOonline.org.

 

BY: A.J. BOCKELMAN