Bending Toward Justice

On May 8, North Carolina became the 31st state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from being legally married. Gay marriage is already illegal in the state, but voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment anyway.

The amendment was opposed by a wide-ranging coalition of legal scholars, progressive religious leaders, CEOs of the state’s largest corporations and ordinary folk, gay and straight. The opposition made a lot of compelling arguments about why the amendment shouldn’t pass. The Coalition to Protect NC Families used video and social media brilliantly in its campaign, in my view, but so did a lot of unaffiliated and passionate others. Documentary filmmaker Frank Eaton did some mighty fine video advocacy on the issue, and musicians from near and far followed Greensboro singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s lead, either by recording her “Vote Against Amendment One” song or writing and recording their own.

For those who oppose the amendment, May 8 was a pretty bad day.

News of the North Carolina vote was everywhere, and then, the very next day in the wake of it, President Obama said the words out loud that so many people had been waiting to hear: “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Such is the context in which The Campaign for Southern Equality brought its “We Do” campaign to Winston-Salem on Thursday.

One by one Thursday, under the scrutiny of a phalanx of reporters, photographers and videographers, 10 couples walked into the Forsyth County Register of Deeds office to request marriage licenses. One by one, they were refused. Reporter Laura Graff wrote beautifully about it for the Winston-Salem Journal.

She invited me along to shoot video. At first I was only going to mosey down to the Government Center sometime before 5, to witness a couple of the protesters get arrested when they refused to leave the Register of Deeds office. But I decided to go for the afternoon. And I’m so glad I did. What I saw Thursday was a beautiful display of love, courage, dignity, respect and compassion — the clerks whose hands trembled as they denied the licenses, reciting lines from little pieces of paper taped to the counter in front of them, “We cannot issue you a marriage license because it is not allowed in North Carolina, under North Carolina law.” The county manager who carefully and softly spoke to the women occupying the office. The sheriff’s deputies who eventually led the women away in handcuffs. And of course the families themselves, who have all been living out their love and commitment to each other in the shadow of injustice, without the rights and protections extended to heterosexual partners.

I feel like we are living in a particular historical moment now, one in which as a society and a culture we’ll soon be big enough, brave enough and grown up enough to set aside the notion that only heterosexual couples should be granted the multitude of legal protections conveyed by marriage. On Tuesday I felt ashamed to live in North Carolina. But Thursday? Thursday was a whole different day.