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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


In the Quest for Marriage, Some Couples Face Long Path

Signs piled on the sides before a marriage equality rally in October 2009 as students ralied around the Student Activities Center. (Nick Genovesi / Statesman File Photo)

All Daniel R. Pinello and Lee Nissensohn wanted was to get married.

In protest, they walked through the doors of Oyster Bay Town Hall two summers ago asking for a marriage license. They were denied, and all they could do was stand there in civil disobedience and be issued summonses for trespassing. “On that day, everything kind of changed dramatically for us,” said Pinello, a non-practicing attorney, who before that day never broke a law in his life.

Pinello and Nissenshon are just two of the thousands who are unable to say ‘I do’ to the one they love. Across the country, marriage equality has become a heated issue. In the last year alone, Iowa and Vermont have legalized same-sex marriage, while in New York the bill was defeated 38 to 24 in the senate, ending the debate until the next election. In New Jersey a bill was also recently defeated in January.

Marriage, or the ‘M word,’ as Pinello puts it, has a religious meaning to people. According to a May 2009 Gallop poll,, 47 percent of people in the United States believe that marriage between couples of the same sex should be legal. But when the question is reworded and the word marriage is taken out, 56 percent said gay and lesbian couples should be legally recognized.

Marriage has a rich religious history and a more modern legal definition. The debate that many hear is about religious issues rather then legal rights. They want the ability to care for their dying spouse and not worry about medical insurance coverage.

“Marriage is complicated,” said Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University who studies gender. “It’s two things at once and we have a hard time disentangling them.”

The reasons for marriage have evolved over time, from the need for procreation and arranged pairings for economic growth to the unyielding love that two people have for each other that we find in today’s world. According to Kimmel, same-sex marriage is just taking the next step in its evolution.

In many areas of the world, this process has already taken the next step. In most European countries, like Spain, the Netherlands and Canada, same-sex marriage is no different from a traditional marriage under the law. Everyone needs to go before a public official to get married,but a religious ceremony is optional.

Many opponents of same-sex marriage say divorce rates will rise if same-sex marriage is legalized. But in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, the divorce rate has actually decreased and continues to be the lowest in the country, according to the National Center for Vital Statistics.

Although most states have yet to legalize some type of same-sex marriage, advocates are pushing even harder. People have been getting married for thousands of years, but the word marriage has a religious history that prevents people from thinking about marriage for what it really is, a legal certificate between two people. “Most people would support civil unions because they support the idea that gays and lesbians should have equal rights,” Kimmel said. “They get confused by the word marriage because it has all those religious connotations.”

People on both sides of the debate seem to be in agreement when it comes to the legal issues. “I personally oppose it on a moral ground,” said Jonathan Pu, a student at Stony Brook University and president of the college Republicans. “But in the legal sense I don’t think there’s anything in the American form of government that prevents it, so long as it’s a states’ rights issue.”

“What the gay community is looking for is the civil rights,” said Catherine Marino-Thomas, the board president of Marriage Equality New York. According to a May 2009 Gallup Poll, 67 percent of Americans polled believe that gay and lesbian domestic partners should have the legal rights to health insurance and other employee benefits. Nearly three quarters of Americans — 73 percent — say gay couples should have legal inheritance rights.

“There is typically a very strong majority support for that,” said Pinello, who is a professor of political science at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, about giving gays and lesbians the legal rights of marriage. “But you ask them if they should be able to marry then there is not, and it is the word that is this touchstone of meaning.”

The only real objection to marriage equality is religion. According to Pinello, people who use this argument really have no validity to what they preach. “If people have strong religious convictions that same sex couples should not marry, then they should not marry someone of the same sex,” he said. “They should not impose their religious beliefs on someone else.”

When an argument is based on a moral issue, it is even harder to convince either side that they are wrong. “If you try to convince someone they’re wrong, based on what they believe deep down in their hearts, you will never get anywhere,” Pu said.

Gay rights and marriage equality seem to some to be a repetition of the civil rights movement and interracial marriage during the 1960s. Pinello took his inspiration for his act of civil disobedience directly from the protests of that time. “My feeling is if other same sex couples do a similar kind of thing, it could have a really important snowballing effect.”

However, the analogy doesn’t entirely hold up, according to Pinello, when comparing civil rights and gay rights. “Black people really had an overt kind of discrimination against them that was truly harsh and was experienced on a daily basis,” the activist said. “Today we can pass. We can get by without all that much of a struggle.”

Henry Ha and Chris Moran at the rally they organized in October 2009. (Aleef Rahman / Statesman File Photo)

Only a few decades ago, it was illegal for two people of different races to get married in the United States. Henry Ha, a student at Stony Brook University who organized a marriage equality rally last month said he encountered a couple at the equality march on Washington D.C. who had a sign saying our marriage was illegal too. “Each time a new group comes up with the strength to fight for their rights, we go through the same process,” said Marino-Thomas, pointing out that all civil rights movements eventually worked when the time was right.

Although marriage equality in the last year has had its ups and downs, there are still many that hope for a positive future. “My prediction is that there will be gay marriage, or something equivalent, in the United States by 2020,” Kimmel said.

In New York, however, Pinello is less optimistic about the future of a gay marriage bill because of the recent failure of the bill to pass in the Senate and the possible change in the political landscape with the upcoming elections in 2010.

When the news broke that the Senate voted down the marriage equality bill, Marino-Thomas was heartbroken. But after 15 minutes she picked herself up. “I am not discouraged about it,” she said. “It energizes me because we know where we stand and what we have to do.”

The hardest thing, she said, was telling her daughter. “I have to go home now and tell my 10-year-old that the government says her family is not equal to others.”

What some on both sides of the issue agree on are civil unions for all. “It should be where marriage is strictly religious with no barring on legal standing and have civil unions for everyone,” said Katie Knowlton, a member of the Stony Brook University Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance. Although he agrees, in theory, that this is a good idea, Pinello says that it will continue to be a uphill battle in our country due to our history of what marriage means to people.

“Ideally that is the best solution I think that should keep everyone happy, but it’s not going to,” Pu said. “The reason for that is because the word marriage is so important.”

After Pinello and his partner were issued summonses and the case dismissed, they flew with family and friends to California to get married. Although happily married, they continue to live with the fear that someday their legal rights as a married couple may be taken away.

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