Montani Semper Liberi - Redux
Guest commentary in Morgantown's The Dominion Post - April 6, 2014
(slightly tweaked below; bracketed items not published)
We need to marry. All of us! According to one study, West Virginia is at the bottom of the rankings for health and well-being. Even Fox News worries about me. They cite another study telling me to get married to lower my risk of heart disease.
Twenty-one years ago, The Dominion Post published my letter that urged fellow West Virginians to support lifting the ban on military service by gays and lesbians. It worked! Unfortunately, 18 frustrating years passed before the military and Congress repealed the horrific "Don't ask, don't tell" policy of 1993 that forced soldiers to live a lie.
I don't know if I have another 18 years before my ticker gives out. Marriage could save me. But West Virginia, if it's not civil marriage equality, I'm doomed. Marriage will get us out of the cellar in our awful state rankings, too.
West Virginia doggedly beckons her children home. So does my family. Our state, born of the Civil War, was celebrating her 150th birthday last year when I returned to Morgantown. The DMV gave me a special Sesquicentennial license plate. (My DMV experience was not as bad as everyone warned.)
2014 is upon us. Marriage equality remains partial. I urge my home state to grant all its citizens the freedom to marry. Seventeen states and the federal government already do.
The topic of civil marriage equality was front and center on a balmy, mid-March evening at WVU College of Law. Hoppy Kercheval, MetroNews Talkline host and radio "dean" of West Virginia broadcasters, interviewed Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry. To me, marriage equality seems a small but significant battle in a larger, nefarious war. Much like a sporting event, teams and fans talk constantly of winning and losing.
Such unremitting talk troubles me. No one loses. Those who can already marry continue life undeterred while fellow Americans gain dignity guaranteed by the Constitution. When slaves were emancipated, free men did not lose liberty. When women were allowed to own property, given the right to vote, and offered the opportunity to serve in the military, men lost nothing. When interracial couples were allowed to wed, marriage rights for others did not diminish. Gay and lesbian soldiers now proudly serve their country, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice abroad. Must they be second-class citizens at home? Civil marriage equality does not create winners and losers. It makes us equal.
Churches do not lose anything. The government does not tell churches to bless marriages, just as it does not tell churches to recognize divorces. Likewise, churches that oppose should not dictate to churches that favor civil marriage equality, especially those churches that bless same-sex marriages.
Consider the larger issue of homosexuality: the Bible does not address it. A man lying with a man in Biblical times was assumed a heterosexual making a bad choice; anatomy determined our nature. Not until West Virginia statehood did "homosexual" even arise as a word. Sure, differences in attraction and desire were known to exist, but only recently have we understood them to be natural.
A straight friend and fellow Air Force officer, now a psychologist, helped me come out 22 years ago. His entire discomfort with homosexuality fell away, he said, when he discovered its normal occurrence in the animal kingdom. He concluded that if the rest of life on earth does not choose its sexuality, then it cannot go against nature. Ask of yourself: When did I consciously choose my sexuality? When did I have that conversation? Could I choose otherwise?
The overarching Biblical message of kindness and love gets lost in ancient purity laws. Why focus on banning civil marriage equality but not on banning divorce? Will we eventually close tattoo shops, stop shellfish consumption, and refuse clothes of mixed threads? Will we discontinue rotating crops and planting tomatoes next to green peppers? Will we remove children from single-parent homes and dissolve marriages that produce no offspring after 10 or 20 years? Will we prohibit marriage for octogenarians? Which abomination or Leviticus holy code becomes the next religious priority for civil law?
Like it or not, change is coming. Younger generations understand fairness. When it comes to equality, they get it! They realize we should base our dignity and moral worth on our existence as rational human beings. They grow up, go to school, play sports, and work together with non-straight friends and relatives. A majority of all Americans now favors civil marriage equality. Young Americans favor it overwhelmingly. The Washington Post reports three out of four Americans younger than 30 support same-sex marriage.
[My nieces and nephew recently asked me to be their designated driver to visit a largely gay dance club before spring break ended. They also attempted to set me up. I can imagine my mother encouraging them. She and I used to exchange fleeting glances and sly smiles when her mother asked about my marriage prospects. My nieces and nephew faced an uphill battle to find me a husband on our night out. Experience leads me to question the wisdom of choosing a date or a mate in lighting too dark to choose a pair of jeans!
Yet, had they been successful, had a committed relationship developed, to what end? Legal recognition in West Virginia does not even exist for this significant spousal benefit: walking into an emergency room to make a critical life or death decision by simply saying, "I am his husband."]
Marriage is not legal for me in West Virginia. Sure, I could marry in Maryland, Massachusetts, or Iowa (to name 3 of the 17 marriage-equality states). But West Virginia is home, and it does not welcome me or the person I love.
My ticker is winding down. I still expect West Virginia to fully embrace marriage equality in my lifetime. [My nieces and nephews will certainly see it happen, and their hearts will be stronger. Their children's hearts will experience nothing but these more perfect unions.]
So West Virginia, let's go! We joined the Union 150 years ago to bring freedom to all. Let's join the Union again today to stand up for civil marriage equality. Future generations will be grateful and proud. Kids will move back because they won't have to worry about heart disease. We will avoid bypass surgeries, perk up the housing market, boom the economy, improve our well-being, and rise up from the bottom of all those deplorable national lists. Everyone who loves someone will be able to get married. We all win! Montani Semper Liberi.
Dennis Maust is a graduate of Morgantown High and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He served more than 13 years in the U.S. Air Force, logging more than 2,500 hours as an A-10 fighter pilot and instructor pilot. He is a major in the Ready Reserve. [And he is home.]