Words Matter

Steven Goldstein does not view the October decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court granting gays and lesbians the same rights enjoyed by married couples as a victory.

Instead, the chairman of Garden State Equality, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians, is calling for the state to go a step farther than the court.

"New Jersey's lesbian, gay, bi and transsexual community and our millions of straight allies will settle for nothing less than 100 percent marriage equality," he said in a press release shortly after the court ruled.

I certainly can't argue.

The 4-3 decision, handed down on Oct. 16, was pretty clear: "committed same-sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples" and denying the rights "statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee" of the state's constitution.

As strong as this language is, the court ultimately punted because it refused to completely overturn the legally enforced second-class status that gays and lesbians have been forced to live under.

That was the point made by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who in a blistering dissent admonished the court for allowing same-sex couples to continue to "be denied the fundamental right to participate in a state-sanctioned civil marriage" -- an unnecessary and unfair "burden" on the couples' "liberty interests."

The court's failure to explicitly endorse gay marriage essentially endorses second-class citizenship for gays and lesbians, she wrote.

"Labels set people apart as surely as physical separation on a bus or in school facilities," she wrote. "Labels are used to perpetuate prejudice about differences that, in this case, are embedded in the law. By excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage, the State declares that it is legitimate to differentiate between their commitments and the commitments of heterosexual couples. Ultimately, the message is that what same-sex couples have is not as important or as significant as 'real' marriage, that such lesser relationships cannot have the name of marriage."

That's the point Garden State Equality wants to make.

"(H)alf-steps short of marriage -- like New Jersey's domestic-partnership law and also civil union laws -- don't work in the real world," Goldstein wrote. "Hospitals and other employers have told domestic-partnered couples across New Jersey: We don't care what the domestic partnership law says. You're not married."

It is all about what we call it, he says.

"(I)t wouldn't matter if the legislature added all the rights in the world to the current law without calling it marriage," he said "Marriage is the only currency of commitment the real world universally understands and accepts.

"We're not seeking marriage merely for some moral, ethereal victory. We're seeking marriage because New Jersey has proven that marriage is the only way a gay civil rights law will ever work in the real world."

But there are forces pushing back. Virginia voters overwhelmingly backed a same-sex marriage ban on Nov. 7 and the president and many of his fellow Republicans, following the New Jersey ruling, resumed their push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, an amendment that would write discrimination into the US Constitution.

The same assault occurred in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state "failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason" to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry. A conservative backlash ensued, aided by the GOP and several state constitutional bans were enacted, votes that boosted conservative turnout and may have helped George W. Bush win re-election to the White House later that year.

There is plenty of fear out there, but there also is hope and there are real people whose real stories maybe the key to turning the tide. It was the stories told to the state Supreme Court by lesbian and gay couples that convinced the court of the very real discrimination faced by an entire class of people.

We have to keep telling these stories, keep breaking down the barriers, so we can get to a day when gays and lesbians have all the rights and benefits the rest of us enjoy.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing at

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2006

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