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It should not be so in America

Editor’s note: North Carolina legislators have voted to place a proposed constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage on the ballot in the May 2012 primary (see related story). The Smoky Mountain News asked Marilyn Jody, a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University and the author of a memoir dealing with her experiences as a lesbian and as a teacher, to write about her feelings on the action by legislators.

By Marilyn Jody

This week I wrote a letter to all the members of my family, telling them that once again it would be necessary for me to speak out in public. And Joanne called her children to ask if they had any reservations about being exposed, once again, as children of a lesbian mother.  

We were referring to the simple fact that we had been asked to write a response to the decision of the North Carolina legislature to place an anti-gay amendment on the ballot. Once again we were reminded what it means to live your life in fear. Would our family suffer? Would we suffer because we were speaking out against discrimination, because some people still don’t understand?

It is difficult to say to people I know and respect, people of conscience and good will, that voting to deny the civil rights of any group of people is wrong. The Constitution was written to protect those rights. Most people in this state and in this country already believe that. But when convictions about same-sex marriage, a matter of personal belief, come into conflict with belief in “liberty and justice” for all, the result is a painful conflict of conscience. We have freedom of the press; we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech; we have the right to privacy. We don’t have the right to deny others those same rights. Not in America.

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SEE ALSO: Same-sex marriage heads to the ballot

Same-sex orientation is not a choice, anymore than being left handed is a choice. I know that as I know I have brown eyes. But that isn’t the question. How to live within that reality is a choice that Joanne and I have had to make over and over again in our more than 70 years of life. We have chosen to live in a sacred, committed relationship, one that began more than 50 years ago.

We were married in Massachusetts three weeks after same-sex marriage first became legal in this country, a civil contract that is only symbolic, since we still have none of the rights and protections for our family that heterosexual couples have. We live with the reality that North Carolina law already excludes us from legal protections that are given to other parents and step-parents. As a mother and grandmother, Joanne continues to live with the fear that her children and their families could be hurt because of who she is, who we are.

That should not be so in America.

For most of my life, I lived in silence, in fear that my family would reject me, that my friends would desert me, that I would lose my job, even that I might be accused of criminal behavior or be physically assaulted. It was not until I taught a class on gay and lesbian literature at Western Carolina University that I was emboldened to write a book about that fear, the same one my students were still forced to endure as Joanne and I had done our whole lives.

In that book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, I wrote about the hurtful experiences my students encountered simply because they had enrolled in the class — the young man, now homeless, whose mother had rejected him when he told her he was gay, who told him she prayed to God to let him die rather than live in such sin. I wrote about the students I had known who committed suicide because they had been taught to hate themselves, taught by their families, their churches, their schools, and their government.

That should not be so in America

In writing and publishing a book about my life, I hoped to save others from some of the injury done to me and others by prejudice and misguided conviction. That is still my hope in writing this article. Given the choice, most people of faith would never choose to allow their beliefs to harm or hurt others.  

But this proposed amendment to the Constitution does do harm — to our state, to our families, to all our lives.  Same-sex marriage is already prohibited in North Carolina by state statute. What the proposed amendment does is further the political cause of a limited few and mislead fair-minded people into voting to rob ordinary people of the dignity and respect accorded to every other law-abiding citizen of this state. Millions of dollars will be spent on political ads in North Carolina over the next few months, promoting discrimination against people whose sexual orientation is different from that of the majority. Many young people will be reading and listening, feeling despair, not hope for their future. This amendment will do nothing to protect our families; it can destroy them.      

I wrote a letter to my representative in Raleigh this week, thanking him for voting against placing the anti-gay amendment on the ballot. And I wrote to the Bishop of this Diocese of the Episcopal Church, the church I belong to, thanking him for signing the statement of church leaders in North Carolina opposing this effort to violate the civil rights of North Carolina citizens. I was truly grateful that I could actually speak freely to both state and church on the subject of my rights as a citizen and as a person of faith. That had not always been possible. But that could change if the ballot box is used as a weapon against a minority whose rights are at stake.

That should not be so in America.

(Dr. Marilyn Jody, professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, has taught literature and writing in multiple university settings that range from Ohio, Indiana, and New York to Alaska and the People’s Republic of China. She is a speaker on gay and lesbian issues in a variety of venues, including national conferences, schools, colleges, and churches. In recent months she has done signings of her book, Letter to Emily: A Memoir, at City Lights Book Store in Sylva and Malaprop’s Book Store in Asheville as fundraisers in support of equality for the LGBT community. Her partner, Joanne Cleary, is a retired teacher and coach, the mother of two children and grandmother of four. She has been an activist in support of LGBT rights both in North Carolina and New York for more than 40 years.  Marilyn and Joanne were married in Massachusetts in 2004, three weeks after same-sex marriage became legal in any state, 48 years after they first met.)

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