We’re Just Defining One WordApril 13, 2008
On Thursday, April 10th, I took a personal day from work to attend a Pennsylvania State Senate hearing in Pittsburgh, concerning SB1250, the Marriage Protection Amendment. (appropriate groans can be made here.) It was a long hearing, and I invested more than 8 hours in driving, walking, sitting and listening to more than 3 hours of testimony, having a beer afterward as I waited for traffic to clear, then heading home again. I’ve waited a few days on writing this entry because I wanted to write about the things that stand out in my mind.
I am struck by the argument from the religious right that their purpose, their goal in proposing a marriage protection amendment is to define one word: marriage. At least, that is what some would have us believe by their testimony at this hearing. Is it even possible for a government to define a word, and hold everyone to that definition of that particular word. How would it be enforced? Who would be responsible if the meaning begins to change, the person using it, or the word itself?
Proponents of the bill would like to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. They claim that all other unions could be called anything else, just not “marriage” which would be reserved for the union of one man and one woman. It’s clear, from other information put forth by these conservative organizations, and from the wording of the bill itself, that they have something else in mind. The intent is not to define marriage, but to exclude certain people from participating in marriage, and the attending civil benefits. If it were not otherwise, there would be no need to include the phrase “functional equivalent of marriage” in the bill. By adding this to the wording of the proposed amendment, supporters have guaranteed that gay and lesbian couples would never benefit from marriage, nor would they ever receive the blessings of civil unions.
Words change. Their spellings evolve, their meanings either change, or develop additional uses. Think about a few words that have changed in the course of a generation or two: smack is generally accepted to indicate a sharp strike with a hand or flat object; it has also come to mean a loud kiss, and an accepted term for the drug heroin. Crack has developed in a similar fashion, acquiring the new definition of a form of cocaine in addition to meaning a fissure and at least 30 other concepts. Awful is another word that has changed from something that is full of awe, to a word that has a negative connotation. How many words have re-entered the language with new meanings with the advent of technology? Words like backup, monitor, cell, download, hardware, virus, peripheral, and memory have taken on new meanings in the past 25-30 years.
“Marriage” is one of those words that has changed. In simple forms marriage indicates that civil or sacred contract between two individuals who are intent to spend the rest of their lives together. It also indicates an intimate or close union, as in the marriage of vocal music and drama to create opera or musical theater for example. At one time, marriage conjured up thoughts of the deals made by fathers as they negotiated the contracts dictated by arranged marriages. Looking at biblical history, we can see that marriage could mean different things for the husband and wife, as the husband was considered of greater importance, while the wife could be just one of many women with a similar union to her husband. Today when we think of marriage, we think of two people searching for that special someone, dating, building common experiences, and finally committing to each other. Even “until death do us part” is optional. Is it so hard to think that marriage is two people, either of different gender or the same gender, who have paired up, committed to caring for each other in a loving relationship?
The bottom line for me, concerning the testimony given by William C. Duncan via Deborah Hamilton, Randy Lee, Sharon Capretto, & Rita Joyce, is that they wish to legislate a definition of marriage that simply prevents a certain group of citizens from participating in a civil right that is offered only to those who happen to have been born as a heterosexual. Some of those who testified in favor of the bill hid their agenda of religion-based discrimination behind convoluted explanations of the definition of a word, and how courts would then continue to define it. Randy Lee even claimed it was a way of ensuring fair trade practices, and compared it to the labeling of canned vegetables: businesses can not put a picture of corn on a can of peas. In the same way, Mr. Lee claimed that calling a same-sex relationship marriage, is deceptive because marriage is reserved for two people of the opposite sex. Sharon Capretto, and to some extent, Rita Joyce, were the most honest about their reasons for supporting SB1250. They expressed their support for this bill based on their religious convictions, their understanding of scripture. However, we do not live in a theocracy and no one’s religious views should be imposed on all of our citizens.
Finally, in a dramatic testimony, Doris Cipolla of Erie, made a passionate, heartbreaking plea to defeat this amendment. She pointed out that we are people, not cans of vegetables. Cans are man-made, vegetables, peas carrots or corn, come from the earth and are easily identified. Sadly, Doris and her partner CharleneTanner lived their lives as a closeted couple. it was only after Charlene’s death that Doris realized that she could no longer be silent. She speaks with such a passion, that several times during the hearing we were moved to tears, or cheering, and spontaneous applause. As she left the desk from which she testified, we stood to honor this woman who spoke so eloquently on our behalf.