Who’s For Gay Marriage?

Philly will never truly be a gay destination until it legalizes same-sex marriage

Natalie Hope McDonald

This past weekend I drove almost six hours to Vermont, a state that recently elected Democrat Peter Shumlin as its next governor, to attend a gay marriage. Two friends – one of whom comes from the same small hometown in Central Pennsylvania, and attended the same Catholic schools, and, as it turns out, even shares a few of the same relatives as me – tied the big gay knot. While the nuptials were intimate and understated – in the living room of a justice of the peace’s white-washed New England h0me (as it turns out, not every gay wedding is feathered in boas and Liza impersonators) – the moment was, to say the least, incredibly moving.

Experiencing two individuals commit to each other openly and publicly may be something heterosexual folks have been enjoying forever, but not so for most gays. To see it up close and very personally – and to have it be recognized by the law – cannot easily be put into words. I can only imagine that witnessing the first schools desegregated or women getting the right to vote may have been similar states of empowerment. It wasn’t the first time I experienced this satisfaction about gay rights in the United States.

When Massachusetts declared gay marriage legal in 2003, I was vacationing in Provincetown. The day the ruling was made, countless couples lined the steps of the courthouse on Commercial Street – just footsteps from Cape Cod Bay – in hopes of making their dreams a reality. For many eager couples, the opportunity to legalize their love came after decades together. This meant equality. It was legitimacy after a lifetime of being treated like second-class citizens.

This grand swell of pride, as you can imagine, was accompanied by much cheer and tears of happiness, with people of all sexual orientations spilling into the streets to cheer the state’s fresh-faced legislation. I can’t think of a better place to have been on that history-making day than in the state’s most fabled gay address.

The feeling was similar after celebrating my friend’s gay marriage (only the second gay wedding I’ve ever attended), and one that bridges the notion of what commitment means for a same-sex couple in 2010, and also brings together an American and British citizen in their right to wed. But the drive home was admittedly bittersweet.

Crossing boundaries. That’s what we all did. They redefined marriage. And I reflected on it as it seemed to take on both a literal and symbolic momentum of its own. Passing through New York, where gay marriage is illegal, then to New Jersey, where civil unions are permitted, and into Pennsylvania, where same-sex marriage is also illegal, these varied notions of legislation almost seemed like a perverse game of hopscotch.

And as my friends – now spouses – left Vermont to continue what hopes to be long lives together, they also found themselves confronting the reality that their marriage is not recognized in most parts of this country. The marriage license issued by the City of Bennington – signed and sealed and legalized – isn’t much more than a piece of paper in 47 states, almost 20 of which now define marriage between a man and woman in their constitutions.

So much for the land of the free and home of the brave.

The way in which Philly – and to a larger extent Pennsylvania – treats gay marriage will paint our legacy as either a fair place or a place of exclusion. It will also determine whether a city like Philadelphia will ever truly become an authentic LGBT destination. Until we grant gay people the same rights as everyone else, there isn’t a gay-friendly ad or tourism campaign that can cover up the hypocrisy of courting gays and lesbians to a place that inherently discriminates against them.

Philly has managed to make great strides in gay rights – having appointed an LGBT liaison to the Mayor’s Office and creating one of the largest gay travel campaigns in the country. But the call for LGBT tourism, while certainly unique and laudable, isn’t consistent with what it really means to be a gay person living in Philly with a fraction of the civil rights afforded to heterosexuals.

I like to imagine a day when history will show how truly ridiculous it was to discriminate against someone based on who they swap saliva with – or who they love. Because when the same rights are not extended to someone based solely on sexual orientation, it’s discrimination. Plain and not always so simple. When a city or state practices this kind of discrimination, so much for wooing gay tourism dollars.

Getting one’s “history straight and nightlife gay” would have deeper meaning if it also made a show for same-sex marriage rights in this, the birthplace of democracy. The day Pennsylvania – and Philadelphia – give two people like my friends the right to marry (and I’m hopeful this will happen) is the day this state – and this town – will truly earn its right to be called gay-friendly.