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“Real” marriage and unreal families

by Ed Madden
Earlier this summer, Michelle was diagnosed with breast cancer. The day I met with her, she’d been working with attorneys all day, trying to make sure that if anything happened to her, her family would stay together. She should have been getting ready for the chemotherapy, she said, she should have been getting ready for the hospital. Instead, she was doing everything she could to make sure that if anything happened, her daughter would remain with her other mom, Roz.

When I attended the Palmetto Family Council’s “classic marriage” luncheon earlier this month, I was thinking about Michelle and Roz.

The Palmetto Family Council and an Upstate organization called First Foundations hosted a luncheon on August 3, ostensibly to celebrate long-lasting marriages, but really to promote the Family Discrimination Amendment. They had lined up the governors of both Arkansas and South Carolina to speak in favor of the amendment, along with Attorney General Henry McMaster, who — in what seems a conflict of interest if not ethics — is chairing their ballot campaign.

Also included at the head table were longtime bachelor Lt. Governor Andre Bauer and Upstate Sen. Danny Verdin, a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans whose election in 2000 was considered by many to be a referendum on the Confederate flag.
I went to the luncheon because I wanted to hear what these speakers would say in support of the Family Discrimination Amendment.

Predictably, they kept referring to it as a “marriage amendment.”

Predictably, too, the pledge sheets on the table only used the first sentence of the amendment — the first 23 words, which define marriage. There are another 114 words that outlaw civil unions, domestic partnerships, or — to quote the amendment — any “legal status, right, or claims” tied to those unions. 

We know that this amendment is about a lot more than marriage, that it is sweeping in its attempts to make it constitutionally impossible for gay and lesbian South Carolinians to protect their families.

This amendment prohibits any form of domestic union and its implications will be devastating for the many gay and lesbian families in our state and their children.

But the proponents of the amendment like to leave our families out of the discussion. The Republican Party pulled the same little trick at the South Carolina State Fair last year; on the mock ballots they distributed they deleted the 114 words that show how complicated and extreme this amendment really is. 

This is why we call it the Family Discrimination Amendment, to provoke an honest and accurate assessment of what this amendment really is and what it really does. That’s why the Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus passed a resolution asking the party to use that title as well.

Every time we call it a marriage amendment, whether in a public forum or a personal conversation with a friend, we perpetuate and reinforce the message that this amendment is simply about marriage. In so doing, we collaborate in the erasure and stigmatization of gay and lesbian families.

The words we use matter. Not only for what they say, but also for what they don’t say, for what’s left out. Not only for what they say, but also for what they imply.
Over the head table hung a banner that read “Marriage Yes” and below that a website titled “RealMarriage.”

The phrase “real marriage” implies that there are some marriages that aren’t real, that some marriages are fake. Think of that old barb, “queer as a three-dollar bill.” To be gay has long been associated with the counterfeit and the fake. 

On the “RealMarriage” website, they are explicit. ”Real Marriage,” they say, “is an institution for a man and a woman. No marriage that violates the man-woman standard can be real.”

So, according to this kind of thinking, our unions — whatever we call them — aren’t real, our relationships are false versions of the real thing, and our families are illegitimate. Under this amendment, only certain families count, because only certain unions are “real.”

To call one family “real” is to imply that other families are unreal — that they are counterfeit families, fake families, illegitimate families — families unworthy of recognition or protection.

South Carolina is fourth in the nation for same-sex couples raising kids, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. These are not hypothetical families, nor are they counterfeit families. They are real families.

That’s why I couldn’t help but think of Michelle and Roz. While our opponents are talking about “real marriage” we are talking about real families, real children, and the very real struggles we face almost daily to protect our loved ones.

The amendment doesn’t define a “real” marriage. It tells South Carolinians like Michelle and Roz that in a state governed by the language of this amendment, their family isn’t a real family, that they don’t count, and what happens to them just doesn’t matter.
Ed Madden is the chair of the SC Equality Coalition and a volunteer for the Fairness for All Families campaign.

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