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Gay-marriage supporters targeting the South

6:16 PM, Jan 15, 2013   |    comments
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Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY

Same-sex couples across the South have taken the fight for marriage equality directly to the people enforcing the laws.

At clerk's offices and registrar's desks, couples working with the Southern Campaign for Equality are asking for marriage licenses, knowing they will be denied. The efforts - staged in seven Southern states this month - have touched some and angered others.

"The message you get in the South is that it's not safe to be completely out as a gay person," said the Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Southern Campaign for Equality. "The action is intended to shine a light on what happens when a discriminatory law is enforced and how that impacts real people in their hometowns."

The WE DO Campaign tour, which began Jan. 2, takes participants to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South and North Carolina and Virginia.

During most encounters, a same-sex couple ask for a marriage license at a government office. A worker explains that they cannot be married based on state law. In response, the couple give a description of their relationship such as how long they have been together and how they met. The two then walk out of the office followed by supporters.

Some have escalated to sit-ins, refusing to leave and being arrested for trespassing. Critics say the tactics are over the top.

Owen Strachan is the executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a Christian non-profit group based in Louisville. For him, the issue comes down to biblical teachings, and he says it is unfair to put courthouse workers under the spotlight.

"These advocates are putting these government workers in a difficult position," Strachan said. "The workers involved do not need to feel any shame about denying these initiatives."

Officials are "following the just laws of society" and "acting in accord with biblical wisdom," he said.

Beach-Ferrara and her team, which includes clergy and liberal religious groups, work with local offices to prepare staff members for visits from couples and often dozens of supporters.

The first couple requested a marriage license with the group in October 2011 in Asheville, N.C. Many say they want to get married where they have grown up and are raising their families.

This year's campaign - dubbed Stage Four - will end with supporters and a couple from North Carolina marching 4.5 miles from Arlington, Va., where couples were denied, to Washington, where it is legal for same-sex couples to be married.

Martha Biondi, director of graduate studies for Northwestern University's department of African-American studies, said the WE DO campaign mirrors civil disobedience tactics used by black Southerners trying to register to vote and college students attempting to eat at white-only lunch counters.

"There is a very powerful parallel in going to the registrar and claiming that badge of citizenship," she said. "In the 1960s, it was the right to vote. Now, it's the right to marry."

In at least one office, the WE DO campaign was welcomed. Drew Reisinger, register of deeds for Buncombe County, N.C., supports gay marriage and encouraged his staff, many of whom don't share his views, to be empathetic as they denied the couples, he said.

"I think to bring that real-life story to people who don't usually have to deal with it is a good thing," he said, adding that some staff members preferred not to interact with WE DO participants.

Other groups such as Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders have taken the issue to court. Janson Wu, attorney for the group, says the WE DO campaign is just "another tool" in the fight.

Beach-Ferrara and others say same-sex marriage in the South will come only by federal law. The Supreme Court will take up the issue in March.

Nationally, support has been gaining for same-sex marriage. In 2001, about 35% of America approved of gay marriage, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In November 2012, 48% approved.

The South is the region least supportive of gay marriage, according to polls cited in a paper by two Columbia University professors, Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips. That's partly because blacks and Evangelical Christians - a large part of the cultural South - are among the least supportive of gay rights.
For Monty Garrish and Steve Myszak, a couple who live in Wilson, N.C., participating in WE DO meant holding hands in their hometown for the first time in their 18-year relationship.

"It was something very special," Garrish said. "Later, we were at a local fast food place, and a gentleman recognized us from that. [He] said, 'I'm really proud of what you did, and by the way, I'm gay.'"

Contributing: Jodi Upton

USA TODAY

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