HRC-red-logoSo, I didn’t go red on March 27th.

If you’re like me and sometimes don’t pay attention, you may have missed the Human Rights Campaign’s new initiative. As the Supreme Court began its deliberations over gay marriage, supporters were asked to wear red. Somehow, I missed this. However, I was delighted to find a sea of red equality signs replacing Facebook avatars everywhere. I have a large Facebook network but have selected each individual carefully, and it is a diverse crowd: both gay and straight, ages ranging from early twenties to late sixties, varying religious affiliations and marriage statuses, many with young children. I’m proud to say that the vast majority of them uploaded the equality symbol and those who didn’t still posted about their support. And I am grateful to every one of them.

But I still didn’t go red nor did I change my profile picture to one of the variations of a pink equal sign over a red background. Some people might think I’d be obligated to do so. After all, my husband and I have been married for almost five years, committed for eleven, and we live in Virginia, where same-sex unions are still not recognized. We have a lot at stake in this issue: we jointly own a house, share health insurance benefits and as we get older, the idea of adoption becomes more strenuous.

So, I was surprised at my own reluctance to download a simple file and make it my profile picture. Technically, I shouldn’t have been on Facebook in the first place – I’m currently at a writer’s colony trying to focus on fiction. I wanted to be as far away from D.C. as possible, mentally removed from its politics so as to focus on my writing. Instead, I immersed myself in all of my friends’ postings of internet memes, Scalia quotes, and demands for equal rights. But exactly what was all of this doing? By midday, there was a clear and unambiguous distinction between Facebook users: those who “went red” and those who didn’t. And even if they were all on the same side of the issue, there was still a need to justify one’s reasons to participate or not.

A close friend of mine, another gay man in his thirties, boldly wrote: “I know I am not the only person remaining who thinks that relationships should be entirely voluntary and do not need the imprimatur of the state or the church to sanctify them.” His statement went largely ignored.

The flaw with this cultural debate (or at least how we are discussing it) is that the word “marriage” itself is multifaceted. It has grown into an umbrella term for multiple contexts. It simultaneously means a romantic relationship, an opportunity for procreation, a religious union, legal protection, and tax benefits. It creates an unwinnable argument. One side yells, “Equal Rights for Gays” and the other calls for, “Protecting the Sanctity of Marriage.” Unfortunately, few people realize that they’re not talking about the same thing. Because these arguments over gay marriage don’t always separate the various definitions of marriage, the word itself gains more authority and power than it might deserve. (In the eyes of many conservatives, it risks reaching its capacity and self-destructing!)

It seems people want a simple argument. They want it to be black and white, about fairness. Well, in that case, I think it’s time we change tactics. It’s time to start separating.  Below, I’ve listed three forms of marriage that we should consider in these conversations:

1. Religious Marriage

This is the one we shouldn’t care about. A religious marriage is specific to the congregation that sanctifies it. Since a denomination doesn’t always recognize the unions of different faiths, inter-faith couples, or a government issued marriage license, then they’ve already shown us that there is no one religious authority governing the right to marry in the first place. And since they’ve removed themselves from the equation, they take with them any religion-based arguments. This means that any congregation’s moral objections have no relevance outside of that congregation.

Since I don’t affiliate with any church, I should not be subjected to their rules or traditions. Outside of the religious context, the government (and now specifically the Supreme Court) has an obligation to show the actual dangers that gay marriage imposes on society.


2. Government-Approved Marriage

This is what we need to talk about. The fact that the government already issues marriage licenses and grants divorces without the approval of any church shows that marriage has already changed to match the needs of society. And the benefits are essential. Once recognized by the government, a couple has established power of attorney, tax benefits, inheritance, hospital visitation rights, spousal health insurance coverage, and the list goes on. For an international spouse, this can secure legal residency.

As tax-paying citizens, the LGBT community needs assurance that their rights are being protected and that their families are given an equal opportunity to thrive. If government-sanctioned marriage offers these securities, then it is obligated to explain on what grounds it can deny these rights to a minority.


3. Personal Marriage

I want to believe that we’ve already achieved this. In its most simplistic form, a marriage is a personal commitment between two unique individuals. It means a lifetime of compromise and sacrifice, an obligation to ensure the health and happiness of both parties involved.  It is a personal unwritten contract, a celebration, a friendship that cannot be replicated. We find ourselves homes or we build them; our families know no limits. And there is no authority that can prevent this.


So, I’ll say it again:  I didn’t go red on March 27th. But I did stop and consider what I already have and what I still want. In this debate, I want my marriage to be recognized, and I want to know that the promises made to my parents are the same promises made to me. That my hard work and my commitment will be rewarded instead of punished.


JONATHAN HARPER is the author of the short story collection Daydreamers. He received his MFA from American University in 2010. His work has appeared in such places as The Rumpus and Chelsea Station, as well as numerous anthologies. Visit him online at

2 responses to “Why I Didn’t Go Red”

  1. Chris Bram says:

    Excellent piece. Too many people automatically say yes to gay marriage without pausing to think what it really means. Which is exactly what you’ve done, in a wise, careful, human manner. As someone who’s been with the same man for thirty-three years, I agree with you that the “personal marriage” is the really difficult, important one.

  2. Steven says:

    You wrote a nice and thoughtful piece and I admire your attempt to clarify the terms. Unfortunately you’ve muddied them. Within the context of the United States of America. Marriage is and always has been a civil contract. A religious leader can be given state authorization to officiate at a Marriage (by the power vested in me, by the state of…. ). A Faith community can have a ritualized ceremony showing their blessing of that civil marriage (the banns of Matrimony or a Nuptial Mass). And people can call their long term relationships marriage and their partners husband or wife. But all of that is overlapping the civil contract. If the State does not say you are married, you are not married.

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