‘We Do’ campaign will confront marriage discrimination across the south

The movement to win the freedom to marry nationwide has had quite a year in 2012 - we won marriage for same-sex couples in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, defeated an anti-gay amendment in Minnesota, and saw vocal, fervent support from President Obama and the national Democratic Party. Same-sex couples are now able to marry in nine states and the District of Columbia.

But in 38 other states, anti-gay, anti-marriage laws and constitutional amendments continue to stand firmly in the way of loving and committed couples' freedom to marry. The marriage discrimination in these states is often invisible or peripheral - understood as fact and law but rarely witnessed or demonstrated. Same-sex couples know that they cannot marry, but the broader community may be unaware that thousands of people each day are being denied this basic freedom.

That's where the Campaign for Southern Equality comes in. For over a year, the North Carolina-based organization has been leading the We Do campaign, where same-sex couples request - and are denied - marriage licenses in their home communities.

On January 2, the Campaign for Southern Equality kicks off Stage 4 of the campaign, which has previously seen action primarily in North Carolina and South Carolina. Freedom to Marry spoke with Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, to learn more about the We Do campaign, better understand the realities that same-sex couples face in southern states, and see how this brave coalition is making strides in traditionally conservative areas.

What's the plan for Stage 4 of the We Do campaign?

JBF: We planned this stage after having heard from LGBT folks all across the south who contacted us saying, "Hey. We feel ready to take action like this in our hometowns." And that's how we mapped out the route for Stage 4. We will be doing these very simple but powerful actions where couples request marriage licenses and provoke denials and shine a light on what discriminatory laws look like when they're enforced. We'll be starting in Hattiesburg, MS, and from there we'll be moving onto Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and three communities in North Carolina. Sometimes it will be a smaller number of couples requesting licenses and provoking denials - one or two - but sometimes it will be a larger number of couples, up to ten or fifteen. The final part will take place on January 17. It will be a two-piece action, beginning in Arlington, VA, where couples who've traveled from across the South will be requesting marriage licenses at the Arlington County Courthouse, the northern border of where these discriminatory marriage laws are in effect in the Southern region. After those denials occur, we'll be processing into Washington, D.C. by foot, about a four-mile procession that will take us to the Jefferson Memorial. There, we'll be doing a public blessing of the legal marriage of a wonderful couple from North Carolina named Mark and Tim (above, pictured), who have been together for 20 years. We'll be honoring that commitment they'll make to each other and, in that, draw further awareness of the reality that LGBT folks are second-class citizens in every southern state, and yet in our nation's capital, they are equal citizens. We want to show how untenable that is as a legal situation in our country. Check out this video preview of Stage Four of the We Do campaign:

How is Stage 4 of the campaign different from the first three stages?

JBF: The primary difference is the geographic scope of this stage - we'lll be traveling across the entire southern region, [whereas other stages were more narrow in focus]. We really see Stage 4 as a journey that begins in Mississippi on January 2 and takes us across the South, culminating in Washington, D.C. With that action, in DC, we're saying, "Here's what it looks like when a request is not denied. Here's what it looks like when a couple does have the opportunity to express their commitment to each other in the form of a legally recognized marriage. Here's what it looks like when people have traveled literally from across the south to stand with them in that moment."

Why is this kind of action - these provoked denials - so powerful for southern communities to witness?

JBF: Through the ritual of approaching a marriage license counter, these couples are doing something that they've been told their whole lives that they have no right to do. I think you can't really underestimate the power of that. When people begin to voluntarily - and with some risk - take action that directly confronts discriminatory laws at the very locus, at the very place where they are enforced, something very powerful happens. What happens in that moment when this discriminatory state law, which is typically invisible to the general public, is actually enforced is very powerful to witness. It speaks to just how insidious discriminatory laws are in terms of harming people.

Have you been surprised by any reactions that these provoked denials elicit from community members?

JBF: Every time couples go into offices and have their licenses denied, the people who are forced to enforce this law are affected by the act of doing that. Sometimes the public employees who work at these offices will actually go to some lengths to express their support for the couples. Sometimes they don't - but we've seen members of law enforcement be emotional, we've seen media be emotional when they witness it, and for us, it just speaks to one of the lessons that we've drawn from history: In any social and civil rights movement, many strategies are required. One piece of each movement is about real people who live in the areas where discrimination is most acute taking action in the public square to expose these laws and provoke their enforcement so that the rest of the public can understand what's at stake.

How have people of faith played key roles in the We Do campaign?

JBF: We have a team of clergy who play a role in each action. Prior to each action, clergy will lead an inter-faith prayer service for reconciliation, which serves two functions. First, it connects and grounds the people taking part in this action, helping us support the couples and surround them with love and make sure they know that many people have their backs as they take this step. But it also expresses that we're literally in the public square: We're in front of court houses and county buildings as we do these prayer services, and it shows the moral basis for the action and asserts our firm faith convictions that this is a moral issue in addition to being a legal, policy issue. It's also important to note that for many people, this is not an act of faith, but rather an act of conscience. We work really hard to express what we're doing in both a faith-based and secular context.

What motivates couples to get involved in this campaign?

JBF: When you click on the national map for what the state of the law looks like for LGBT rights, the south is kind of the black hole of discrimination. So in that context, what we hear people saying again and again is, "I am ready to do anything in my power to protect my family and to be treated as an equal citizen under the law."

How does the We Do campaign relate to what's going on in the broader marriage movement?

JBF: The purpose of the We Do campaign is not just to highlight what a discriminatory law looks like when it's enforced. It's also to advocate for federal equality measures - whether it's the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act or the Supreme Court. It's our belief and our position that that is the most efficient pathway to equality for LGBT folks in the South. The reason we do what we're doing with the We Do campaign is that we think that actions that happen in the south can be one more piece in helping people understand all that's at stake for people and understand why federal measures are so critical. People are quite savvy politically, and they understand that given the current political and legal climate in courts and legislatures across the region, we would be looking at waiting for, literally, decades, to see the kind of progress that needs to happen actually occur on the state level. It's not just that we don't want to wait. It's that we can't wait that long. So we see this new strategy in the south to advocate for federal equality as a complement to what's happening in the Courts and what's happening on the legislative level, and what's happening around public education and building public support. We see the We Do campaign as one more piece in the puzzle.