Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara launched the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) in 2011. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, CSE is a nonprofit with national efforts to assert the full humanity and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in American life.
Of CSE’s body of causes, the WE DO Campaign — a protest that consists of LGBT couples legally requesting (and being denied) marriage licenses — is “one arm,” according to Beach-Ferrara, who serves as executive director.
“We launched the first stage of WE DO in Oct 2011,” Beach-Ferrara says. Part of the WE DO goal “is to directly resist and draw public awareness to the reality of the discriminatory marriage laws that are on the books currently and in that, be advocating for federal equality in terms of federal law.”
To date, 38 couples in 10 cities across North and South Carolina have sought marriage licenses as part of the WE DO Campaign, with over 500 friends, family members and clergy standing with them in support. On January 4, 2013, WE DO arrives in Mobile.
Cari Searcy and Kim McKeand are one of the couples participating in WE DO in Mobile. The couple married in California in 2008, before Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriages.
Like Searcy and McKeand, Cliff Simon and Julian Hazlett were married elsewhere, in New York, but choose to live in Alabama. Simon, 61, and Hazlett, 70, have been together for 27 years. They married last October.
The couple is sympathetic with the desire to be married at home among friends and family, but Simon, who teaches set design at UAB, also notes an economical point. “I will say that if [gay marriage] had been legalized [in Alabama], I would have gotten married here and invited lots of people from out of state to the wedding, and they would have come here and stayed in hotels, and eaten in restaurants and gone back and told their friends that this a really beautiful state and has a lot of things to admire.”
Simon supports WE DO. “Aside from just being a political statement,” he says, “I think the point is that we see something that all straight couples have as a matter of course is denied to other residents of the state, which is just bigotry, prejudice and fear. I totally understand that people who are used to living a certain way have a problem with accepting this huge change in society. But the only way a fluid society exists is through change.”
Change is certainly a goal of CSE. “Part of why we’re doing all of this,” Beach-Ferrara says, “is that it’s a necessary step for our country to move forward on these issues, to expose and confront discrimination where it resides. And to do so from a basis of love.”
As a reverend, Beach-Ferrara is concerned with reconciliation among individuals — on either side of the issue.
“What we’re tying to do is have this conversation in very human terms,” she says, “moving it beyond the partisan scrawl or theological debate that have dominated the national debate. You know, these are real people who live in every town across the South. They conduct their lives with courage and pride, are fully equal, and yet are second-class citizens under the law. A very powerful way to convey that [second-class role], we hope, is through the ritual of a couple going through the steps of trying to be served at the marriage license counter.”
Although couples anticipate rejection, receiving the license refusal can be jarring. “There’s a number of ways explicitly and implicitly that our state says [LGTB citizens] have no right to go in to that building and go up to that counter,” Beach-Ferrara says. “It’s innumerable the ways in which we receive that message. So when a couple makes the decision to confront and provoke that discriminatory system, that’s a powerful experience.
“One of the interesting things about current marriage laws in the South is that they are typically unenforced because no one asks for the license. They know they’ll be denied. And so the general public is insulated from understanding quite how harmful these laws are.
“Having [marriage licenses] denied is not just an affront to [a couple’s] humanity but it’s also an affront to their equality. They’re being denied over 1100 rights offered through marriage that cannot be accessed any other way.”
Children of gay couples are often denied health insurance rights if the state does not recognize the policyholder as the child’s legal parent. Troubles arise regarding social security benefits, veteran benefits, Medicare, and Medicaid. Beach-Ferrara expounds on these on rights, noting that the moments one needs legal documents to be in order are often moments of chaos, illness or death.
“These are the kinds of issues we see playing out in cases before the Supreme Court,” Beach-Ferrara says, “especially the challenge of the Defense of Marriage Act. The country is really wrestling with how to address these questions on a legal and policy level.”
CSE is not interested in engaging in that wrestling match. Instead, according to Beach-Ferrara, the nonprofit bases all of its work on “an ethical framework called empathic resistance, which basically calls us to take steps to resist the laws we believe to be unjust and discriminatory, and at the same time, calls for us to connect to those who enforce those laws.”
This manifests in CSE’s practices, including meticulous outreach maneuvers. WE DO, for instance, is a combined effort of CSE, couples, and city offices. “The growth of the campaign is dictated by people reaching out and saying ‘We’d like to do this here,’” Beach-Ferrara says. Couples who hear of WE DO — often through social media — contact CSE, requesting to participate in their hometowns. CSE in turn contacts the marriage license office.
This is how Mobile entered the list of cities visited by the protest.
“We show the office precisely what we’re doing, when, why, and how many people will be involved,” Beach-Ferrara says. “Our intent is not to catch people by surprise but to use this occasion as an opportunity to be in dialogue with folks. To date, we’ve been met with professionalism and civility.
“Some folks have been affected by denying a license to folks. There are certain dynamics we see play out in a lot of Southern communities; life has a small-town quality to it. In many of the communities, people actually know the person on staff at the office — through little league or church or school.”
This connectedness plays out in emotional interactions at the marriage counter.
“Couples get emotional,” Beach-Ferrara says. “We’ve seen media members have to leave the office, having witnessed denial after denial. We’ve seen public employees from law enforcement to people behind the counter become emotional as well. Discriminatory laws are insidious. They hurt the people enforcing them. They hurt the people being discriminated against.
“These employees are doing their jobs as servants of the state, but these laws might not reflect their personal beliefs. Some staff have expressed that they wish to grant the licenses. There are tensions emerging in that there are people on the local and county level who support full equality, but they’re bound by discriminatory state laws.”
Beginning this month, as Birmingham begins its 2013 commemoration efforts of the civil rights events of 1963, CSE will protest in seven states across the South. Starting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, moving to Mobile, and onward — they will visit small towns and larger urban areas at the request of citizens.
“LGQT people in the South grow up hearing that we don’t have access to the rights and blessings of others, like getting married,” Beach-Ferrara says. “One thing we hear people expressing, as far as why they take action, is that they’ve had enough of that. You can only live so long as a second-class citizen before you’re exhausted by it and ready to do anything in your power to change that.”
For more information on The Campaign for Southern Equality, visit southernequality.org.