Creating change through strategic actions
Putting a face on discrimination one tactic to advance LGBT equality
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)