Marriage and Family: An Open Letter to Phil Burress, Leader of the Ohio Group that Worked to Ban Gay Marriage
you’ve been successful in securing a constitutional ban against gay marriage in Ohio, it may be an appropriate time
to consider what else can be done to strengthen the institution of marriage. I
know that strong and healthy families are important to you and your supporters, and that more needs to be done. I therefore offer the following as a few recommendations for action as you and your allies sit down to
evaluate the 2004 elections, and plan for the future.
a personal note. My wife Elizabeth and I will be married 10 years in February. We are blessed with two children we both love ferociously. As the cliché goes, it’s not always perfect. We fight
about money (having enough, how to spend it), about the kids (strategies for child-rearing), the schools (which ones are best
for the kids, and how to get more involved), politics (the Middle East is always touchy for us), and numerous other topics. A current item of debate is the basement: it’s unfinished; she wants to spend
the money; I don’t. It’s typical stuff: a combination of the mundane
and meaningful. My point is this: it’s a good marriage, Phil, and like
most every marriage, there are things that could make it stronger, and things that could make it weaker. And that holds true for most of our friends as well. So the
suggestions I have about strengthening marriage and the family aren’t merely abstract – they’re reflections
of a personal need as well, for our family and millions of others across America. Here
Make quality, affordable child care available to everyone. You
know how hard it is for a family to get by on one paycheck these days, forcing both parents to work outside the home. And many women are raising kids on their own, with no choice but to work outside the
home to feed, house, and clothe their children. Supporting a family is stressful
enough without having to pay for child-care, or worry about the quality of that care.
We could make life so much easier for marriages and families by expanding the availability of low-cost or free, skilled
Make sure that every child in Ohio has access to high-quality education.
Elizabeth and I want the best possible future for our children. Every
couple does. But unless there are academically strong, safe, and well-funded
schools for every child in Ohio, those prospects are diminished. A commitment
to good schools means attracting good teachers, making sure that every child has access to tools for learning such as textbooks,
and providing funding for programs to help children who are struggling. But if
we can do all that, I guarantee that it will strengthen our marriage and thousands of others, because it will give us all
the security we need that our kids will have a chance for a decent life.
Create livable-wage jobs with health insurance. The instability
created within families where parents can’t find work, or afford health insurance, is self-evident. As you probably know, the number one reason for bankruptcy in the United States is the inability to pay
medical bills, and parents and their children deserve to sleep at night without worrying how to pay the rent, put food on
the table, or afford medications.
Provide comprehensive sexuality education for our state’s children.
The evidence is significant: comprehensive sexuality education that includes information on all the available strategies
for reducing HIV/STDs and pregnancy, and that facilitates access to tools for reducing risk, can improve the sexual health
of adolescents. Most American parents support such education, and we can support
Make sure that every family in Ohio can live in decent, safe housing. Here
in Cleveland, nearly ¼ of all children are lead-exposed. Thousands of other children
across Ohio live in housing that is unsafe, or inadequate for their developmental needs.
Again, sick and inadequately housed children increase stress within families and marriages.
Strengthen our community safety nets. Places like the Free
Clinic and Hunger Network here in Cleveland, and homeless shelters across the state, have seen dramatic increases in the number
of people seeking help. Through no fault of their own, some families are in crisis. One of the things your group could take on as a project is ensuring that those community
resources have the funds they need, so that families can get the help they deserve.
Strengthen laws and community norms designed to protect people from intimate partner violence and the abuse
or neglect of children. When people are victimized by intimate partners,
when children suffer abuse and neglect, they deserve to know that police, courts, community organizations, and faith institutions
are their allies. And surely everyone can agree that such violence and neglect
undermines marriage and the family. As long as a single person is still endangered
by violence committed by a loved one, we haven’t done enough.
Make sure that every individual’s civil rights are fully protected.
African American families, Hispanic families, Jewish families, Muslim families – the list is pretty extensive
– are often taxed by the burdens of racism, antisemitism, discrimination against the disabled, sexism, and a host of
other social forces that rob individuals of their energies and dreams, and limit their opportunities and hopes. Those aren’t just abstract social forces, they’re social sins, and we’re all responsible
for doing everything we can to foster justice and opportunity for every Ohioan.
Make sure that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are legally protected from discrimination in
employment, housing, public accommodations, access to benefits, and every other domain of public life. This point may seem like a somewhat untenable recommendation, given that your group opposes gay marriage
(or anything that approximates it). But think about it: when gay people are forced
out of their jobs solely because they are gay, who supports them? Friends, and
family – which places additional burdens on those families. When gay people
are refused housing or public accommodations solely because they are gay, who helps pick up the pieces? Friends, and family – and you know that families are already challenged. When gay people become ill or unemployed, and are denied partner benefits, who helps shoulder the load? Friends, and family – and Ohio families are struggling. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers of LGBT people – their lives, their families
are weakened by anti-gay discrimination because of the pain of watching a loved one being hurt, because of additional economic
burdens. It seems to me that if we’re concerned about strengthening marriages
and families, then we could help by making sure that those families don’t have to suffer alongside their loved ones
as they face discrimination, intolerance, and outright hatred.
One more idea: It strikes me that your group should do a little more about HIV/AIDS. I’ve called around to other organizations, and nobody can recall ever seeing your or your group –
or for that matter, anyone from any of the abstinence-only-until marriage groups in Ohio – volunteering to help people
with HIV/AIDS. So I’d like to make an offer: help with our annual client
holiday party. We provide a nice meal for about 300 people, gay and straight,
young and old, African American and White and Latino. We have holiday gifts for
everyone, provide some entertainment, and Santa is always there for the kids. It’s
kind of like one big family, though a lot of the people there have been rejected by their biological families. We need help serving food, distributing gifts, helping people feel welcome.
I would even suggest that you might offer a blessing – one of the things we usually do – but there’s
one caveat: you have to bless everybody, as who they are, because you have to admit, Phil, that people living
with HIV/AIDS are often amazing people, and no one deserves this awful disease. No
These are just a few ideas. I hope you’ll consider them. I know you’re a religious man; I am too, and I think these are the kind of issues
we take into our hearts, and weigh, and then act.
Back to the personal. I mentioned earlier that Elizabeth and I
have fought about the typical things over the years. Oddly enough, one of the
things we’ve never fought about is whether giving LGBT people the right to marry or enter into civil unions would
threaten our marriage. It won’t.
In fact, our lives and the lives of our children have been enriched by the lives of our gay and lesbian friends who
are in long-term, committed relationships. We’ve even said it aloud to
each other: if Harold and Steven can stay together for 27 years, despite discrimination, despite rejection, despite the enmity
of others . . . well, if they can do it, then we can get over the current, utterly inconsequential spat we seem to be having
at any given moment.
a few ideas. As I said earlier, Elizabeth and I will be celebrating our tenth
anniversary early next year, and I know that you would join those who continue to wish our marriage, and our family, well. As for us, we will also wish a happy anniversary to our friends Carolyn and Kate,
who have been together for 13 years, and are together raising a beautiful daughter; to our friends David and Mitch, who have
been together for six years; to our friends Gail and Susan, who have been together for over 20 years; to our friends Michael
and Ken, who have been together for 17 years, and to countless others. They’re
lovely people; I wish you could meet them. And for them, we are grateful: for
strengthening our marriage by demonstrating what love really is.
day they’ll be able to get married. That’s just part of it: some
day they’ll never have to worry about getting fired, kicked out of schools or apartments or neighborhoods, getting sick
and dying alone because of family rejection, being taunted and harassed, beaten or killed.
Some day it’ll all be okay. That’s the long arc of history:
it bends toward light and freedom, despite setbacks and obstacles. It just does;
you know that, and I know that, and I suspect sometimes that your opposition to gay marriage is rooted in opposition to history
itself. Some day it’ll all be okay; and maybe our children, or our grandchildren,
or our great-great-great-great grandchildren will live to fully see it. And I
don’t know about you, but wherever I am – heaven, dissipated in the Milky Way, or just resting quietly under some
green meadow: wherever I am, I’ll smile.