|"Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state." --Text of the proposed constitutional ban
For many Asian Americans, it is extremely difficult to discuss the proposed constitutional amendment banning civil unions and marriage rights for same-sex couples, primarily because of religious beliefs and cultural traditions. From Hindus to Buddhists, to Muslims and Christians, Asian Americans who oppose "gay marriage" think it runs counter to their religious beliefs and their culture. To them, it is taboo to even talk about it.
It was, therefore, a huge step for the Wisconsin Organization for Asian Americans (WOAA) to cross traditional boundaries by facing the issue head on during its Spring Unity Potluck on April 29. Its leaders agreed that there was a need to enlighten its members on the issue, so they could vote intelligently when the question is placed on the ballot this November. The WOAA presented U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay legislator from Wisconsin, who explained why the proposed constitutional amendment should be defeated.
"It is an amendment that would prohibit in the state of Wisconsin same-sex marriage, also civil unions, and domestic partnerships," Baldwin began as she readied to present her theories on why the amendment is being proposed at this time. "Interestingly, the state already has a law that defines marriage within the state of Wisconsin. It doesn't surprise anyone to know that Wisconsin's current law defines marriage as between a husband and a wife. And so that might draw the question to your mind of why should we be pursuing a constitutional amendment that says that and goes even further to restrict the potential for future rights to a group of people in the state of Wisconsin?
The first of Baldwin's theories is political motivation. "A few years ago, a constitutional amendment was proposed at the federal level. It's called the Federal Marriage Amendment, and substantially similar to the amendment that is being discussed here in the state of Wisconsin," she narrated. "It didn't make a lot of sense because, why address it in the federal constitution when the states in the United States have always governed the institution of marriage?"
Baldwin recalled that the proposal languished for a while, then as the election drew closer, there was an abundance of hearings. "We were ... talking about health care for all; (but) that same year, there was not one hearing held in the House of Representatives or the Senate on the need for Universal Health Care," she said. "But there were five hearings scheduled in the House Judiciary Committee on why we needed to pass the federal marriage amendment, scheduled as we were heading towards the election." It wasn't until September of that election year, when they voted on the House floor, which Baldwin called "a very tough vote for many people." She surmised that it was used as a political tool to motivate who is going the turn out for the November 2004 election. (It will be recalled that 11 other states in the U.S. had constitutional amendments questions on marriage on their ballot.) Baldwin believed that those responsible for putting them on the ballot did so to influence: who would be coming to the polls; the outcome of those referendum questions; and who would win the U.S. presidency, the U.S. Senate seats, and U.S. House seats. She added that this is the same motivation of the Wisconsin state legislators.
"The State legislators could have chosen to put this on the ballot earlier, in April; but rather than do that, they wanted to wait until the November elections, the partisan elections where they hope to influence who shows up and who speaks out," Baldwin emphasized. "They have been playing politics -- with real people's lives, real Wisconsinites' lives." Given current state law, she said the amendment is unnecessary and in many respects shuts down pursuit of political aspirations. "In our U.S. Constitution, we have the right to petition our government for redress of wrong," she explained. "So if you put this in a state constitutional amendment, the U.S. constitution, you're really telling a group of people that if you aspire to some law change in the future, you no longer have the right to petition your government for redress of wrong."
Baldwin's second theory relates to domestic partnerships and civil unions. "Domestic partnership policies have been used to extend very important benefits similar to those that one is automatically entitled to when one becomes married to people who either cannot marry or choose not to marry," she stressed with passion. "Important benefits like health care coverage, or equitable treatment ... issues like hospital visitations where your loved one is hospitalized, and you can't be with your loved one. That's something that a married person would take for granted, but others cannot necessarily take for granted." The proposal would wipe out the ability of states to pass domestic partnership laws to recognize injustices and correct them, Baldwin argued.
Focusing on the reputation of the state of Wisconsin, the congresswoman talked of its lack of competitiveness in recruiting talented people. She cited an example in which the University of Wisconsin failed to attract one of the most coveted pediatric oncologists in the country because the UW didn't provide domestic partnership coverage for his partner. An additional issue that she put emphasis on was something that she'd experienced numerous times. "When people in government -- officials, authorities say that a little discrimination is OK, it';s kind of like a wink and a nod to people that it's OK to harbor bigoted feelings or discriminatory animus,"Baldwin said. "I don't think we should ever have government officials and authorities sending that message to our population. It's not OK, and we must always aspire to be a nation that stands for equality of opportunity for all."
In addressing the argument which has been raised in support of this amendment that says: "If we don't pass an amendment like this, what about religious liberty? What about the right of religious organizations to define marriage for their own purposes as they wish?" Baldwin said, "I can tell you that regardless, if we do not pass this constitutional amendment, nothing will change. Right now, religious institutions have the right to choose to marry who they choose to and who they don't. And we will never change that in the United States. We have the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution on the separation of church and state. Many religious institutions right now will not marry folks that the state of Wisconsin will. It is something that we have had throughout the history of our nation as a very strict separation."
Addressing the Asian Americans in her audience, Baldwin said, "Those of us who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, (and) transgender community, we don't walk in one another's shoes, but I think there is a way in which we relate to minority status, and there&'s an experience that probably all of us share in terms of having witnessed the wrongness of bigotry, and the harm and the pain that bigotry can inflict."
Full of hope, she urged her listeners to not only oppose the constitutional amendment by voting against it in the ballot box in November 2006, but to speak up and educate within their families, in their work setting, in their places of worship, and in their social organizations. Finally, Baldwin shared what the Constitution meant to her. "Constitutions are foundational documents; they talk about how democracy works; they also talk about our aspirations as a people and draws us together," she said. " Our U.S. Constitution promises equality of opportunity and bears within it the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From it you can draw the underpinnings of what we call the American Dream. All of those things are part of our foundational document, and at times when we have amended constitutions before, it has almost always been to expand the horizons, the aspirations and the rights of Americans. These are documents that really define us as a people, and I think the idea of passing an amendment that constricts, that denies opportunities and denies aspirations, even to the extent of precluding the ability to petition the government for redress of wrong, is certainly not very Wisconsin-like, and certainly not very American." After Baldwin talk, a panel representing the Asian American LGBT community and their supporters spoke of their individual stories. They were comprised of the following: Dennis Tucker, Pabitra Benjamin, Saad Akbar, Asius Vangio, and Al Poliarco.
The gathering definitely opened up some doors for understanding and accomplished a goal that many Asian Americans initially thought was impossible: an open discussion about equal rights for same-sex couples as they relate to the proposed constitutional amendment banning civil unions and gay marriage.
|On Wisconsin's constitutional amendment
WOAA discusses "A Question of Equality"
by Heidi M. Pascual
|WOAA members Al Poliarco, Jayson Chung, Pat Takemoto and Lakshmi Sridharan welcome U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (center)|
|(Left) Pabitra Benjamin of Fair Wisconsin
(Below) Attendees to the WOAA Potluck listen to Tammy Baldwin.