Opinion: Witnessing NJ’s shameful vote (1/11/10)
By Geoffrey Wertime
New Jersey brought shame upon itself last week when the state Senate voted, 20-14, to defeat a bill that would have extended full marriage equality to same-sex couples. I was one of thousands of people at the State House in Trenton Jan. 7 who watched the legislation fail, and one of many thousands in the state who suffered because of it.
In an overflow room with a few hundred others, mostly supporters as we vastly outnumbered our opponents, I felt the blanket of defeat fall on us as my own senator finally cast the 20th “no” vote and heard the one happy person on our side of the room scream “hallelujah!” as she clapped triumphantly at the confirmation of our unequal status.
My senator, Jennifer Beck, R-12th, cast that last vote with a photo of me and my boyfriend, which I handed her mere hours beforehand, either staring her in the face or — and this is more likely — buried under a stack of papers somewhere on her desk. It’s a photograph of us at a wedding this summer, one of three friends’ ceremonies we attended in the space of a month. She cast that vote after telling me earlier in the day that women had to wait for the right to vote, and that same-sex couples will have to wait as well.
It’s hard not to feel like an outcast when all of your friends are enjoying a privilege that is denied you, especially when a legislative body reaffirms that denial.
During the debate last week, certain legislators made excellent points about the impossibility of “fixing” an institution that’s textbook separate-but-equal; about its similarity to landmark legislation extending the vote and other rights to women and racial minorities; and about the obvious need to help the 4,288 couples in the state with a second-class civil union right now. That doesn’t include the many lesbian, gay and bisexual people who have not yet sought legal recognition of their relationships, or who refuse to settle for anything but a true marriage.
It amazed me how little some senators seemed affected by the presence of over 1,000 equality supporters, or some of the incredibly touching stories they heard over the last weeks and months leading up to the vote from couples who have faced serious discrimination. I suppose they resonated with me because I fear I’ll become one of them.
My boyfriend and I already draw stares, catcalls, and even threats for the mere act of holding hands or chastely expressing affection in public, while our straight friends can be far more affectionate and be declared cute. In a parking lot in East Windsor a few summers ago, it took me a minute to realize the repetitive noise I was hearing was a man across the street yelling “fags!” at us because I was so used to hearing that kind of thing. People in places as different as Philadelphia and Paris have followed us, walking down streets or through train cars, to menace us for standing too close to one another.
Beyond all the legal implications, it’s a horrible feeling to know you’re second-class. Few people even know what it means to be “civil unioned,” but everyone knows what it means that our friends are married. Asking, “Will you join with me in a union that’s civilly recognized?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as, “Will you marry me?” It’s clear segregation, and we’re on the losing end.
I volunteered for the campaign to get the bill passed, and I had no expectations of a miracle last week. So I’m surprised now how incredibly disappointed I am that New Jersey, so often a leader in civil rights, has botched the opportunity to move into a new decade by affirming loving relationships many other states already recognize. I feel completely betrayed by the politicians who treated my love as a political football they used to score points by playing the majority against the minority, the exact opposite of what the Legislature was established to do.
The 20 senators who voted against marriage equality, and the three who abstained, showed their true selves last week. They declared that I am not equal to my friends, many of my neighbors, or they themselves.
No matter what happens next — and gay rights groups have already announced they are taking this issue to the courts — the Jan. 7 vote was a black mark on the entire state, one of which we should all be ashamed and one which should appall every citizen.