It's the news blurb of the moment. Since the decision of Lawrence v. Texas
and its consequences
, the issue of public policy concerning the recognition of legal unions between persons of the same gender has been kept fresh on everyone's minds. If the polls, articles, editorials, letters, and magazine specials
weren't enough, a bevy of legislative items have been launched in states across the United States addressing this controversial issue. Most of them seem intent on reiterating points already guaranteed by the Defense of Marriage Act
, making absolutely clear that the legal rights afforded by civil marriage
are reserved exclusively for heterosexual couples. Legislators feel concerned that the federal act was not enough, that just one decision against this exclusivity in another state
could, through mysterious legal complexities, force their own states to extend the concept of civil marriage.
Two of those bills were brought to the table in my home state of Wisconsin. They are named assembly bill 475 and senate bill 233, identical bills. Their intent, as stated directly from the text of AB 475: "To promote the stability and best interests of marriage and the family." The action proposed to fulfill this intent: "It is the public policy of this state that marriage may be contracted only between one man and one woman."
For bills of this sort, it is the policy in Wisconsin to have a public hearing of committee members who co-sponsored the bill to hear testimony in favor and against. Official testimony is invited from professional sources, then those who submitted formal requests may give subsequent testimony regardless of their position in relation to the bill. The legislators sponsoring AB 475 and SB 233 used a parliamentary back door to call a snap hearing on the two bills, giving only two days warning that they planned to do so. Two days. They had informed the parties concerned with other bills presented at the session weeks ahead of time. Bills such as changing the wording of a law concerning double damages awarded to dog attack victims from 'bite' to 'bite that punctures the skin and leaves a scar'. Bills that made minor adjustments to interest rates on obscure investments. For such an important and contentious issue, proponents and opponents received two days warning. The only conclusion I can draw is that the co-sponsors hoped they could slip this past the public without too many hassles.
Had they attempted this ten years in the past, they would have succeeded. Fortunately for those of us who care enough to follow government proceedings, we have some modern tools at our disposal. I received an email from the organization Action Wisconsin informing me that the committee had quietly announced the date of its hearing, rapidly relayed through a number of political advocacy organizations by the grace of communications technology. Being a resident of Madison, the home of the state capitol, I was fortunate enough to be within easy reach of the hearing. Other citizens of the state were not.
On Thursday, August 21st, after three hours sleep I woke up at 8:30 a.m. After a rushed shower and skipped breakfast, I biked downtown to the capitol building and trotted inside. Like most capitols, ours imitates the Neo-Classical architecture of federal buildings in Washington D.C. In my personal opinion, several hundred years of this pompous and overwrought style was quite enough, but I grudgingly concede that one can't really imagine an important American governmental building any other way. In any case, the four wing structure and jumbled numbering system left me confused as to where participants in the Action Wisconsin rally were meeting, so I was forced to wander for about fifteen minutes up and down the floors before spotting a middle-aged pair of women with assertively short hair. Begging their assistance, they kindly pointed me in the right direction.
I arrived just in time to hear enthusiastic clapping and watch the doors of the coordinating room burst open as streams of people spilled out and cascaded down the hall toward a hearing room. As if it were a friendly neighborhood party, they all wore small stickers on their chests.
Defender of Family
on SB 233 & AB 475
Compared to some of the teenagers that left the room, I was dressed in a painfully conservative fashion. Rimless glasses, subdued hair, plaid collared shirt. Nothing startling. One could easily imagine me fitting in at any Young Republicans meeting. I had purposely played down my normal appearance, hoping to use the unassuming attire to my advantage. After a moment's indecision, I ditched that plan, picked up a sticker and information packet, and joined the last stragglers. I was going to blow my cover at some point. Then was as good a time as any.
Before entering, we were all asked to write our names and addresses on small slips of paper, then check one of four boxes. I filled out the slip, then made a check mark. Pausing to look it over, I noticed that I had checked 'AGAINST - Speaking' instead of 'AGAINST - Not Speaking'. I had absolutely no intention of presenting testimony. I had done no necessary preparation, nor did I have confidence that I could make any point which both sides would have not already addressed. But I had made the mark in pen. Again, after a moment's indecision, I handed the paper to the bailiff and filed into the hearing room. I could just waive my request when my name was called. All in hand.
The room was packed. Each side was filled with rows of chairs, the majority already occupied. In the center were a long raised bench for the co-sponsors, a small bench opposite it for testimony, and two lowered benches on either side for other committee members who were against the bills. When I arrived, it was standing room only. I took my place at the back among other teenagers, who grinned at me in a shared mission. The committee announced the agenda. AB 475 and SB 233 would come last, preceded by five other bills. This sounded reasonable, as they were minor in comparison. The chairman, Senator Zien, announced his confidence that this whole hearing could be wrapped up around 2:30 or 3:00 p.m.
The Senator's confidence was misplaced. The preceding bills took five hours to sort out. In the meantime, most people had retreated to the coordination room to grab nourishment in the form of granola bars and soda that some kind soul had thought to bring. I got to talk further with many of the people there, including the other teenagers. They were a thoroughly charming group, some of whom I knew from the local youth counseling service and others I met for the first time. Everyone was in good spirits. I felt welcomed. As I crunched granola, I read over the releases from other groups like the Family Research Institute. Growing irritated, I began mumbling to myself, a spoken shorthand of the rushing counterarguments. "Argumentum ad hominem, argumentum ad verecundiam, argumentum ad verecundiam, prejudicial language, argumentum ad hominem, slippery slope, unsubstantiated conclusion." It wasn't even the emotional content of their points that angered me. I've made a practice of reading the magazine The Economist on an extremely regular basis despite my sometimes vehement disagreement with it, because their rhetoric is sound and their writing is more eloquent than anything to which any modern media source even aspires. I was angry because the arguments made were logically unsound.
This does not sit well with INTJ personality types. We don't like emotions cluttering our rational debates. I started jotting down my objections on the back of my Action Wisconsin information packet. I expanded on these points. I started to connect them. I tried to predict counterarguments, understand them, and defuse them. I scratched out lines and replaced them. I rewrote my incomprehensible scribbling into a coherent series. Soon, without honestly intending to do so, I had written a speech. My tone was as emotionally neutral as I could manage, I had kept the argument relatively consistent within my ability to identify, and I did my damnedest to show understanding of the reasons for these bills' introduction. Retreating to a corner of the room, I drudged up memories of the public speaking class I had thought so inane at the time, but now seemed rather important. Maintain a varying, but grounded tone of voice. Make eye contact often, and with everyone to whom you are speaking. Do not read too quickly, make sure that you can be understood. Stress key words, but only those that help and do not hinder the conveyance of the sentence's main point. I recited the speech quietly. I recited it again. And again. I read through it about thirty times, put it down to talk for awhile with the new friends I had made, then picked it back up and practiced some more. The proceedings of the hearing gave me more than enough time to do so.
Finally, around 3:30 p.m., they announced the last two bills of the agenda, Assembly Bill 475 and Senate Bill 233. The two writers of the bill stepped down from their seats at the high bench and to the opposite bench as the first testifiers. I expected them to reiterate the points lain out clearly in their bills; that they wished to protect the family and allowing the civil marriages of same gendered couples would harm the family. I was incorrect. They did not even mention the written intent of the bills. Rather, they launched into an almost incomprehensible stream of legalese about complimenting current laws, defending against decisions from out-of-state courts, and the fact that the bill changed absolutely nothing about current state law. "This is not a stick in the eye for anyone," representative Gundrum insisted, "we just want to clarify the current public policy."
I couldn't determine whether the writers and co-sponsors of the bills intended it as a stick in my eye or not. The people who testified in favor, however, made it perfectly clear to me. Many were representatives or adherents of religious orders, many married. It was evenly split between young and old, with a bias toward men. A select made their testimony respectfully, courteously, and without jaw-dropping transgressions of rational argument. I was grateful to them, among whom was a representative for the Catholic Council of Wisconsin. They did not form the majority of the testimony, however. There was the woman who spent ten minutes citing passages from the King James Bible, apparently puzzled as to why all government decisions shouldn't immediately be made upon its authority. There was the man who talked about homosexuals as, "all having hundreds of partners over the course of their short lifetimes," and "universal carriers of AIDS, the sign from God of his wrath." Abomination came up often. Threat to the family too. Violators of tradition. Sick freaks. Pedophiles. One man affirmed his support of murdering us one by one. After a long, meandering fundamentalist Christian argument littered with enough faggot bashing buzzwords to fill more than one bingo card, the chairman commented with a wondrous voice, "That was powerful testimony, sir. I hope everyone was listening. Have you ever considered writing this down? I think it would be powerfully affirming and I would distribute it to my colleagues."
I was trembling with anger. I am deeply, deeply disappointed to say, it wasn't only at them. Though I shared their emotions, though with all my heart I wanted to jump up and start yelling every hurtful, vicious thing that came to mind, the conduct of a few testifiers against the bills was intolerable. They made purposefully divisive statements that pandered to our side, but did absolutely nothing to further the argument. Using public records of divorces, they singled out individual committee members for hypocrisy. That they were hypocrites is true, claiming to be defenders of families while tearing their own apart, sometimes multiple times. But I can't harp on argumentum ad hominem by my opponent while overlooking it in my proponent. That was unnecessary, exhibiting an eye for an eye attitude. Did it give me pleasure to see those representatives squirm? Yes. Was it right? No.
The hearing room was ordered to remain silent, however Action Wisconsin had encouraged participants to raise their hands in the air when a point they strongly agreed with was made, and to turn their backs when something hurtful and insulting was said. I spent greater time with my back turned to the committee than facing it. Afraid that I would be unable to stop myself from an outburst, I left the room and moved to an overflow room where the arguments could be listened to over a speaker. I talked with some of the teens who retreated there too. You could see it on their faces. There was anger, the sort of clumsy, but passionate anger that overtakes kids of my age. More so though, there was deep hurt. Many of them had driven or been driven for hours only to sit and listen to a bigot list reasons why they should be murdered. These people, fighting over a minor facet of contract law, a phrase of seven words, were deeply hurting my friends. They were insulting us not only with words, with the strongest words they could manage in the already base decorum of a political arena, but with a statement of law. You are not deserving of the rights that we exercise. You are not human enough to appreciate the joys that we appreciate. You are broken and obstinate in refusing to recognize your defect. You are worthless to the citizens of this state. You could say this, harshly, to criminals. We had committed no crime. Rather, simply by existing, by whatever combination of hormones, brain chemistry, and environment coupled with a refusal to pretend otherwise for others' comfort, we deserved this treatment.
I returned to the hearing room. I kept listening. People told stories of their families. A man who had been in a committed relationship for twenty-three years who was told that he and his spouse were officially strangers to each other. A mother and wife of fifteen years who, if she died, could not protect her child from being ripped from her remaining mother and placed in foster care. The committee members had no intention of protecting these families. They meant nothing to the representatives. It was nearing 9:00 p.m. before I could speak. I walked to the stand, sat down, and thanked the committee for their time. I delivered this testimony:
My name is izubachi and I am a resident of Madison. I remember, when this bill was first read by the authors, that they were arguing that it was just a reinforcement of public policy, for clarity. They gave many intricate legal arguments for this. I am a high school student, not a law professor. I cannot make an informed judgement on that argument. So, I concede the point.
Instead, I would like to ask, is this public policy the representatives hope to reinforce good public policy? No argument is made based on sound, secular policies to defend the bills. Rather, the axiom that the rights of men and women to form civil marriages with those that they love would protect the family is simply assumed to be true.
Arguments to tradition are not merely enough to justify this assumption. Over the course of human history, many traditions such as slavery, torture, religious persecution, and domestic abuse have extended across cultures, and been reinforced by governmental authority. This does not validate those traditions.
I am not making a false analogy between those hateful institutions and the actions proposed by these bills. Mountain and molehill. Rather, I am making the point that argument to the tradition of civil marriage as between a husband and wife, or as these bills hope to redundantly define, a man and a woman, is not valid without convincing reasons to back this tradition up. We must ask: is this tradition a right tradition? Is it a just tradition?
One can object that many religious bodies have doctrines against marriage between same gendered couples. These doctrines are informed by their scriptural interpretations and hierarchical dogmas. They are thus based in something more than tradition. Religion is a vital part of many citizens' lives in the state of Wisconsin. No religious institution should be forced to recognize marriages that violate their doctrines. To do so would be an affront to the dignity of faith.
The state government of Wisconsin, however, is not a religious institution. It cannot be informed by religious objections. After all, what of those religions that do recognize same gendered marriages? Are their sacraments less important, less worthwhile than the sacraments of those that don't? Barring religious objections, and with no connection made between equal civil marriages and damage to families, I see no acceptable reason for reinforcing discrimination.
I set down my paper, paused a moment, and looked up at the committee. I could have just as well delivered the speech in Greek
. I could have stood up on the table and mimed it
. Not a single word had even reached them. I was talking to a brick wall. I looked at each of their faces, and I realized that all they saw sitting there was an inhuman. When I said, "my name is Eric," they heard I am faggot number thirty-two keeping you from dinner
. When I said, "I am a resident of Madison," they heard I am a blubbering, brainless liberal
. And when I said, "I am a high school student," they heard The only reason I haven't caught AIDS yet is because I can't find anyone to fuck
My legs were shaking, my eyes ached, and I was stinking with sweat. Physically and emotionally, I was exhausted. And to see them staring at me, grinning slightly, completely incapable of seeing me as anything more than a faggot, just snapped something. I started talking. I don't even remember what I was saying, I just started talking. My ears were buzzing with fear and anger and hurt and every negative feeling bottled up for more than six hours. My voice shook. I was crying. I didn't want to hurt these people anymore. I didn't want to yell at them or insult them. I was simply tired. I felt like shit, they felt like shit, we all just wanted this fucking catastrophe of a day to be over. I was not going to be told I'm inhuman. I refused. I'd surrender every indignity of etiquette to them, wait the day patiently as they praised the virtues of people who'd like me chained in a cage, but that was the line.
I am a human being. This isn't about the marriage, about the bills, about any of that shit. In the longest run it's irrelevant. This is not irrelevant.
I am a human being.
After I ended my testimony I simply left the hearing room, choking sobs. When I got home, I was miserable. I had embarrassed myself and all the people who had devoted their time and energy to this. I was a self-righteous and self-absorbed teenage piece of shit who had thrown himself into something he obviously couldn't handle. I went to sleep just wishing I could disappear.
Sleeping for twelve hours soothed those feelings quite a bit. I still had doubts. Yesterday, I got a call from another teenager whom I had given my phone number. He sincerely complimented me on my testimony and conveyed the gratitude of the other kids there since they didn't get a chance to talk with me. When it came their turn, shortly after my departure, they unfurled a paper banner with hundreds of signatures saying, "Wisconsin supports all families." This was their silent testimony.
It was far more eloquent than any number of words I could have said. But I did my best. And I am proud to have been there.
You guys are the kindest, most supportive folks I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. Thank you.