Sunday, March 31, 2013

Gay Marriages in the 1970s: Older than Cellphones and the Internet

Gay marriage and gay rights were on the court docket last week The Supreme Court of the United States heard two days of arguments on two cases regarding gay marriage and rights. There were several snarky and demeaning quotes from the conservative members of the Court:

Justice Samuel Alito: “You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cellphones or the Internet? I mean we — we are not — we do not have the ability to see the future.”

Justice Antonin Scalia: “I’m curious, when—when did—when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted?”

Justice Anthony Kennedy: "There's substance to the point that sociological information is new. We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more."

This may be news to the Court but gays and lesbians have been coupling since the dawn of humankind. Just to keep it simple, let's look back 40 years to the early 1970s in the United States. With a quick a Google search, I have come across numerous gay and lesbian marriage stories from that decade.

On June 4th, 1971, the Gay Activist Alliance decided to use one of their activist tools called “zaps” and occupy NYC's Marriage License Bureau. The GAA considered zaps as direct, non-violent actions to confront oppressors. The City Clerk Herman Katz had threatened to arrest the minister of a local gay church, the Church of the Beloved Disciple, for performing "Services of Holy Union" which the City Clerk said were the equivalent of gay marriage. The GAA invaded the office with coffee and cake to hold an "engagement party" and protest the anti-gay "slander" of the city clerk.

Three YouTube videos were recently posted of this 1971 occupation.

Marc Rubin and Pete Fisher were an activist couple that were members the Gay Activist Alliance and participated in the Marriage License Bureau zap. As one of the first out gay teachers, Marc Rubin helped found the Gay Teachers Association in 1974. With assistance with Lambda Legal they filed a lawsuit to win domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian public school teachers. The suit dragged on for six years, and was settled in negotiations with Mayor David Dinkins giving such benefits to all city employees. Rubin and Fisher were together for more the 35 years until Rubin’s death in 2007.

Jack Baker, a law student, Air Force veteran, and gay activist from Minnesota, pressed for the right of same-sex couples to marry from 1969 to 1980. He and his lover, Michael McConnell, a librarian, repeatedly sought to obtain a marriage license. Their attempt to assert their rights as a married couple ended when the Minnesota Supreme Court decided the case of Baker v. Nelson in 1972 and the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed their appeal "for want of a substantial federal question." About 18 months after Hennepin County rejected their application, the couple traveled to southern Minnesota's Blue Earth County, where they obtained a marriage license on which Baker was listed with an altered, gender-neutral name. That license was later challenged in court but was never explicitly invalidated by a judge. Currently, the couple lives in retirement in a quiet, nondescript south Minneapolis neighborhood. “I am convinced that same-sex marriage will be legalized in the United States,” Baker told a group of lawyers on Oct. 21, 1971. When asked why they pursued the case, Baker wrote, “The love of my life insisted on it.” Their case received the most national attention including a three-page photo essay in Look magazine.

Meanwhile, even further west, John Singer walked into the King County marriage license office in Seattle Washington with his lover Paul Barwick and asked county auditor, Lloyd Hara, for a marriage license. Hara refused. The couple had met at a meeting of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in Seattle. Barwick was a Vietnam veteran and Singer had served in the Army as a medic in Germany. Their gay marriage lawsuit, Singer v. Hara ended unsuccessfully with the Washington State Court of Appeals laughing the men out of court in 1974.

In Jefferson County, Kentucky in 1971, Marjorie Jones, a mother of three children, and Tracy Knight, her partner, were in love and wanted to marry. They applied for a marriage license, were refused, and filed suit. The Jefferson Circuit Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in Jones v. Hallahan that same-sex couples may not marry. During the Jefferson Circuit Court hearing, Judge Lyndon Schmid delayed the start until Tracy Knight changed from a beige pantsuit she wore to court into a dress. He said the pantsuit was “offensive to the court.” “She is a woman and she will dress as a woman in this court,” the judge declared. The county clerk James Hallahan testified that same-sex marriage would “lead to a breakdown in the sanctity of government,” jeopardize the country’s morality, and “could spread all over the world.”

From a post at
Queer African American Women and the History of Marriage:  This photo and headline accompanied an article from the October 15, 1970 issue of Jet magazine. They reveal that long before the recent struggle for marriage equality began, African American women who love women have engaged with the institution of marriage and have fought to make it their own.

Edna Knowles, on the left, and Peaches Stevens were wed in Liz’s Mark III Lounge, a gay bar on the South Side of Chicago, “before a host of friends and well wishers.” The article ended by noting, “although the duo has a type of ‘marriage license’ in their possession, the state’s official marriage license bureau reported it had no record of their license.” This ending serves to remind Jet readers that Knowles and Stevens’ union was not legitimate in the eyes of the state, as does the use of quotes around the word “married” in the headline.

In his book “Same-Sex Marriage,” author David E. Newton describes a county clerk in Colorado that issued a half-dozen same-sex marriage licenses.
“In Colorado 1975, David McCord and David Zamora approached the county clerk in Colorado Springs seeking a marriage license. The clerk responded the “we do not do that here in El Paso County, but if you want to, go to Boulder County they might do it there.” The Boulder County clerk, Clela Rorex, consulted the assistant district attorney for Boulder County, who said that there appeared to be no state law that prevented the clerk from issuing a marriage license to two individuals of the same sex. Which she proceeded to do. In succeeding months, she issued five more marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The practice came to a halt, however, when state attorney general J.D. McFarlane issued and opinion on May 7, 1975, that Rorex’s actions were illegal under stat law.”

Another one of the six couples were Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams. They had traveled from California to obtain their license.
“Two gay men in Colorado, Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, sue Joseph D. Howerton, acting district director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), to force him to recognize their marriage, legally performed in the state (Adams v. Howerton). The purpose of the recognition was to allow Sullivan, a citizen of Australia, to remain legally in the United States. The court ruled that immigration law prohibited the INS from admitting homosexuals to the country, so the Congress did not intend to recognize a marriage between homosexuals.”

Hundreds of same-sex couples sought public recognition of their relationship in commitment ceremonies. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), founded in 1968 by Rev. Troy Perry in Los Angeles, had a policy of performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples that had been together for at least six months and had undergone pastoral counseling. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Community Church had performed more than 150 marriages during its first four years. Couples also found other churches willing to solemnize their marriage vows or otherwise bless their commitments. The Advocate reported in 1972 that there were “mainline churches where such ceremonies are performed,” although “the ministers often prefer to say merely that they are ‘blessing’ a union.”
One early MCC minister, Rev. Robert Sirico, performed what was reported to be the first “gay marriage” ceremony in the history of Colorado. According to an article in the Denver Post, It was held at the First Unitarian Church in Denver on April 21. The wedding was for the previously mentioned gay couple Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan.
In November 2014, the LGBT site reported on a Houston Chronicle story that recounts the Oct. 5, 1972 wedding of Antonio Molina and William"Billie" Ert in Texas.  Mr. Molina was a former high school linebacker and Navy veteran and Mr. Ert was a drag queen and nightclub performer who performed under the name Mr. Vicki Carr. While Ert was dressed in drag, the couple tricked the Wharton County clerk’s office into issuing them a marriage license. Two days later, the couple held a ceremony at Dallas' Metropolitan Community Church with a minister officiating. But the county clerk declined to record the couple's license when the rouse was exposed.
Molina and Ert obtained their marriage license just months before the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a federal lawsuit challenging Minnesota's same-sex marriage ban, Baker v. Nelson.

Even with all these stories about same-sex marriage happening in the 1970s, that was not the focus for most gay and lesbian activists. Most were not interested in getting married or winning equality. What they were fighting for was liberation. At the beginning of the 70’s, homosexuality was still considered a crime, a disease, a mental disorder and a perversion.  The early activists were more concerned with fighting against employment discrimination, physical assaults, police harassment and brutality. 

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