Yesterday, many people noted that representatives of religious faiths, on both sides, gave quite a lot of the testimony before Senate Judiciary, while a long list of marriage equality supporters didn’t get the opportunity to speak. Sean DiGiovanna was one, and his testimony was noted this morning in Jersey Jazzman’s post on NJEA’s support for marriage equality. This is the testimony Sean was prepared to give; I asked him to post it. And I should tell you two things: Sean is a long time member of the Blue Jersey community, as is his husband. And I attended their wedding, which was wonderful. – Rosi
NJEA has endorsed the marriage equality bill that passed today in the Senate Judiciary Committee. As an NJEA member and acting head of the NJEA LGBT and Allies caucus, I was asked to testify today. Although I was not called upon to testify, I thought I would share it with you here. I’m also quoted in NJEA’s news story on their endorsement here.
Testimony before NJ Senate Judiciary Committee on Marriage Equality
Sean DiGiovanna, January 24, 2012
My name is Sean DiGiovanna and I am a high school teacher and Acting Director of the LGBT and Allies Caucus for the New Jersey Education Association. I am here today to speak in support of Bill S1 “The Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act”. As an NJEA member, I am proud of my union’s support for this bill and want to share with you the importance of its passage. I will speak both as a NJ citizen personally affected by this bill, and as an educator.
Almost 14 years ago I met Alex, my husband (although currently the State of New Jersey refuses to recognize him as such). In the course of our lives together we have experienced the same triumphs and setbacks as many married New Jersey couples. We courted, fell in love, bought a house and have worked hard to improve our community in a variety of ways through charity and civic participation. Yet, in many ways, we are denied full participation in New Jersey by the refusal of the state to recognize our relationship for what it is – a marriage.
Shortly after the Domestic Partnership law was passed, my husband Alex and I registered with our township. We were happy that there was finally some mechanism through which we could legally formalize our relationship and our rights and responsibilities toward each other. Still, we acknowledged at the time that the Domestic Partnership stopped well short of the protections of marriage. These shortcomings were driven home to me when Alex was diagnosed with cancer. Whether it was getting family medical leave at work to take Alex to his surgery, serving as his advocate at the hospital, or dealing with issues during his recovery, I constantly had to prove that Alex and I were family by showing paperwork and explaining our rights under the law. It was not lost on me that a newlywed heterosexual couple would receive a great deal more latitude and acceptance than my husband and I, who at that point had been together a decade.
When the Civil Union statute was passed in New Jersey, Alex and I decided to wait for full marriage equality. We did not want to keep collecting scraps of paper – all of which stopped short of granting us the full rights and inclusion we deserved. As Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut all passed marriage equality laws, we were hopeful New Jersey would follow suit. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Finally, when the state of New York passed marriage equality last year, Alex and I decided to get married there. Our wedding was a joyous occasion, held on a boat in New York harbor, surrounded by friends and loved ones. Still, we could not help but feel embittered when we looked across the Hudson and saw that the state of our home and of our hearts refused to give us the same basic dignity and protections as New York. In our case, we made a conscious decision to spend as much of our wedding dollars in New York as possible – and we were not alone. This is money that could have come to New Jersey.
As a further indignity – and to show you that a New Jersey Civil Union is truly NOT the equivalent of marriage, we discovered that in order for our New York marriage to be unambiguously recognized as a Civil Union in New Jersey, we would have to file papers and pay a fee. Heterosexual couples who marry in another state are not required to do this to have their relationships recognized.
What has the word “marriage” done for us? It has given us a certain dignity and acceptance we could not achieve in a civil union. Marriage implies a permanence and seriousness to a relationship that is impossible to capture in “partnership” or “civil union”. Being able to call Alex my husband leaves for no interpretation but that this is a serious lifelong commitment, rather than a “partnership” that can be lightly entered into and easily dissolved.
As a History teacher, I educate my students about the long march of civil rights for groups in the United States who have faced prejudice and discrimination on the basis of WHO they are as human beings. I teach them about the case of Plessy v. Ferguson – how once the courts supported the concept of “separate, but equal” and how that idea was later categorically overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. The Civil Union statute creates a class of relationships that are separate and UNEQUAL.
Our students in New Jersey come from many different kinds of families. Some have same-sex parents. Some have uncles, aunts, cousins or family friends in loving, same-sex relationships supported by their communities. Some LGBT students are struggling with acceptance and security in a world that seems indifferent and often hostile to them. Think of the message the State of New Jersey sends when it categorizes the love and support of same-sex families as different than (and somehow less than) “normal” families. Children pick up on the subtle signals sent by society – and the denial of marriage equality sends the signal that it’s OK to treat same-sex couples and their families differently. This can and has led to incidents of teasing, bullying and harassment – despite the recent anti-bullying law. The state is basically saying “on the one hand you must treat everyone equally and with respect, and on the other hand it’s OK to treat same-sex families differently”. Why should kids respect the state’s admonition against bias when they see it practiced by the state so openly?
On the other hand, think of the message it would send to the thousands of students, teachers and school officials who are in or know of same-sex headed families if the State of New Jersey were to pass marriage equality. Your message would finally be consistent. You would be saying that all families are built on love and commitment, have the same rights and responsibilities and thus should be treated equally.