Cre­at­ing change through strate­gic ac­tions

Putting a face on dis­crim­i­na­tion one tac­tic to ad­vance LGBT equal­ity

GA Voice - - Activism - By Dyana Bagby dbagby@the­gavoice.com

When Beth Schissel and her part­ner of 15 years, Sally White, ap­proached the clerk in DeKalb County Pro­bate Court ear­lier this month and asked for a mar­riage li­cense, they were told that due to Ge­or­gia’s law ban­ning same sex mar­riage, their ap­pli­ca­tion was de­nied.

Schissel and White knew this was go­ing to hap­pen. They know it is il­le­gal for gay cou­ples to get mar­ried in the state, thanks to both a law and a 2004 state con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment ap­proved by a whop­ping 76 per­cent of Ge­or­gia vot­ers.

But they wanted to put a face on the dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“Our im­pe­tus was if not us, who? If not now, when?” White said af­ter she and her part­ner and four other cou­ples were de­nied li­censes on Jan. 7.

The cou­ple, who moved to Sandy Springs a year ago, were par­tic­i­pat­ing in the We Do Cam­paign or­ga­nized by the Cam­paign for South­ern Equal­ity based in Asheville, N.C.

Since Oc­to­ber 2011, the We Do Cam­paign has trav­eled through sev­eral South­ern states and or­ga­nized cou­ples will­ing to be de­nied mar­riage li­censes, while also mo­ti­vat­ing dozens of oth­ers to turn out to show sup­port.

In De­catur, a large prayer cir­cle was held in the front lawn of the DeKalb Court­house be­fore the five cou­ples walked into the build­ing and down­stairs to the Pro­bate Court Of­fice, where peo­ple can get mar­riage li­censes as well as pis­tol li­censes.

Rev. Jas­mine Beach-Fer­rara, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cam­paign for South­ern Equal­ity, said the We Do Cam­paign is part of a strat­egy the or­ga­ni­za­tion has been work­ing on since 2004.

“We slowly came up with a blue­print for the South for a new strat­egy to ad­vo­cate for fed­eral equal­ity that in­volved look­ing at how peace­ful di­rect ac­tion could be one more com­po­nent for the move­ment,” she said.

The South is rich with ex­tra­or­di­nary hu­man strength and LGBT peo­ple liv­ing won­der­ful and full lives, she added. But legally, they are sec­ond-class ci­ti­zens.

In Ge­or­gia, peo­ple can still get fired for be­ing gay, although cer­tain cities and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, in­clud­ing At­lanta and De­catur, pro­vide pro­tec­tions for LGBT peo­ple.

Cur­rently, Ge­or­gia Equal­ity is work­ing to pass the statewide Fair Em­ploy­ment Prac­tices Act, which would pro­hibit fir­ing state em­ploy- ees based on their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity. The bill was in­tro­duced last year by state Rep. Karla Dren­ner, who is gay, and has bi-par­ti­san sup­port but was not able to get out of com­mit­tee. “The truth is there is very lit­tle LGBT in­fra­struc­ture in the South and very lit­tle fund­ing com­pared to other parts of the coun­try,” BeachFer­rara said. “We saw this as real op­por­tu­ni­ties to tap into that hu­man power and also re­spond to the hu­man needs.”

The pur­pose of hav­ing gay cou­ples seek mar­riage li­censes in states where mar­riage equal­ity is il­le­gal is to bring aware­ness to the dis­crim­i­na­tory law, she added.

“Laws that ban mar­riage equal­ity are typ­i­cally in­vis­i­ble. They are not tested. No one chal­lenges them so they re­main in­vis­i­ble. One part of this ac­tion is to make the law vis­i­ble and to show it im­pacts real peo­ple,” Beach-Fer­rara said.

When the cou­ples were de­nied li­censes they were de­nied over 1,100 rights in that moment. At the same time, they took a step to vol­un­tar­ily ex­pe­ri­ence de­nial in or­der to put pres­sure on a sys­tem of dis­crim­i­na­tory laws.

Beach-Fer­rara said it is true that mar­riage equal­ity will not likely come to the South any­time soon and that it will prob­a­bly take a fed­eral law to en­sure mar­riage equal­ity comes to places like Ge­or­gia.

“But watch­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what peo­ple have said we have no right to do is one step to­ward pro­gres­sion,” she added.

Still, this does not mean cou­ples on their own should be­gin march­ing to their lo­cal court­houses and de­mand­ing mar­riage li­censes, stressed Beth Lit­trell, staff at­tor­ney with Lambda Le­gal’s South­ern Re­gional Of­fice in At­lanta.

Lit­trell, rep­re­sent­ing Lambda Le­gal, par­tic­i­pated in the We Do Cam­paign in Ge­or­gia on Jan. 7 as a le­gal observer.

“The im­por­tance of their ob­jec­tive is to show that it is an out­rage lov­ing cou­ples are treated as le­gal strangers and any ef­fort to bring aware­ness to that in­jus­tice we sup­port,” Lit­trell said.

“In cre­at­ing a net­work of sup­port­ers to bear wit­ness to the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of dis­crim­i­na­tion, it was pow­er­ful and ef­fec­tive to see a cou­ple walk up to a clerk and be de­nied,” Lit­trell said.

Go­ing to a court­house by hun­dreds ev­ery day can lead to change in pub­lic opin­ion, es­pe­cially in the South where the laws are so re­gres­sive, Lit­trell said. But Lamdba Le­gal is not sug­gest­ing that peo­ple take part in any spe­cific ef­fort to change the mar­riage law or chal­lenge the law, she added.

“Be­com­ing part of the move­ment, talk­ing to friends and neigh­bors and talk­ing to clerks and oth­ers to bring aware­ness of how the laws ef­fect them — pub­lic aware­ness events, so­cial me­dia — there is a myr­iad of ways peo­ple can di­a­logue and con­tinue con­ver­sa­tions that can be ef­fec­tive,” she said.

“But by them­selves they won’t cre­ate change.”

Ed­u­ca­tion is the key to cre­at­ing change, agreed Jeff Gra­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ge­or­gia Equal­ity, the state’s largest LGBT ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Gra­ham, who made a name in At­lanta’s LGBT ac­tivism scene in the 1990s as an out­spo­ken mem­ber of ACT UP, said he knows there is a role for protest ac­tions like the We Do event. He now lob­bies un­der the Gold Dome to a Repub­li­can-ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­ture.

“Given my own in par­tic­i­pa­tion in civil dis­obe­di­ence I can cer­tainly un­der­stand how pow­er­ful it is. From that place I re­spect what the cou­ples did,” he said.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion con­tacted him last fall about their planned event and to dis­cuss some de­tails.

Gra­ham did not par­tic­i­pate in the ac­tion. He said he doesn’t re­call Beach-Fer­rara specif­i­cally ask­ing Ge­or­gia Equal­ity to join in, although she says she did. Also, the date was right af­ter the hol­i­days and Gra­ham and his staff were busy pre­par­ing for a lob­by­ing sem­i­nar and work­ing on preleg­isla­tive is­sues.

Gra­ham said he thought it was ideal to do the ac­tion in gay-friendly De­catur and be­fore the leg­isla­tive ses­sion be­gan. The ses­sion started Mon­day, Jan. 14, a week af­ter the ac­tion.

“Our chal­lenges [in Ge­or­gia] are mon­u­men­tal with our po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and the high bar we have with the amend­ment in place. We have to be strate­gic and smart … and that is not why we are rush­ing to re­peal the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment,” he said.

“Peo­ple need to un­der­stand mar­riage equal­ity is not just il­le­gal here but it is un­con­sti­tu­tional. That is an im­por­tant mes­sage we need to get the broader com­mu­nity to un­der­stand,” Gra­ham said.

“We have done a good job ed­u­cat­ing in At­lanta and some other larger cities, and now we have to do this ef­fec­tively in smaller cities, in con­ser­va­tive com­mu­ni­ties. When that hap­pens, then it will be fea­si­ble to have th­ese con­ver­sa­tions in the leg­is­la­ture.”

Rev. Jas­mine Beach-Fer­rara (right) leads cou­ples and sup­port­ers to the DeKalb County Court­house as part of the We Do Cam­paign. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)

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