Note from Laurel: On Valentine’s Day 2011 my fellow Washingtonians Ben Crowther and Danny Canham joined dozens of other LGBT couples in over 13 states taking part in GetEqual’s direct action “drawing attention to the fact that loving couples – some of whom have been together for decades – are still living as second-class citizens without the right to marry.” I asked Ben and Danny to describe their experience and they kindly agreed. Here is their story in their own words.
On Valentine’s Day, two students marched down to the local courthouse in Bellingham, WA and demanded they be given a marriage license. As expected, they were denied and turned away, but not without giving bystanders a show first.
As the Washington State Co-Lead of GetEQUAL, Ben Crowther started hearing about Valentine’s Day protests several weeks ago. The stories and plans of other activists from around the country and the energy, passion, and creativity he heard from them inspired him to organize an event where he lives in Washington. The night before the action was to take place, he asked who among his friends wanted to try and marry him the next day.
His friend, Danny Canham, volunteered to be his partner in crime. While Danny doesn’t view marriage as a necessity for equality or something that should be aspired to, actions for equality are still actions for equality. No matter the cause, even if one doesn’t believe in marriage equality specifically this was an action worth participating in.While neither intends to get married in the near future, they want the opportunity for this to be available in the future. Additionally, institutional inequality is inherently damaging because it establishes a system wherein some identities are designated as inferior.
That afternoon, Ben and Danny met to plan their action. Together they filled out their application for a marriage license. As they reviewed the application, Ben noticed the gendered language of the form and quickly decided to correct it so the form read “male” and “
fe male.” They alerted their friends and reporters from the campus newspaper and within an hour were headed to the courthouse.
Knowing the reality that they would be rejected, Crowther and Canham approached the demonstration to prove a point. They wanted to challenge the state office, forcing them to justify the law while simultaneously showing how ridiculous it was. Further, they aimed to raise awareness of this as an important issue. As they learned from reading the article in the school paper the next day, this was the first time the Whatcom County state auditor had had a same-sex couple apply for a marriage license in her 23 years.
Entering the Licensing Office with an entourage of media in tow and forms in hand, they took their place in line. A county records clerk called them forward, and as they explained their intent to apply for a marriage license, the clerk became uneasy and explained that Washington does not allow same-sex couples to marry. The clerk suggested that they instead apply for a domestic partnership, which offers all the state benefits of marriage. When they questioned the value of domestic partnerships and demanded to know why they were excluded from marriage, the clerk quickly called in the state auditor.
By this point, others in the office were taking notice of the fuss being made at the counter, their heads peaking over cubicle walls. The state auditor approached the counter. When Ben asked why the pair couldn’t get married that day, she urged them to speak to the state legislature attempting to remain polite as possible while clearly becoming increasingly frustrated.
Ben immediately pointed out that she was the one who ultimately decided whether or not they would walk away with a marriage license that day. As the person in a position of authority at the moment, she was the one saying no, and he would be approaching the legislature regardless.
When she made the argument that she was not legally allowed to give them a marriage license, Ben countered with the fact that she was under no obligation to follow a law that is unconstitutional under multiple court rulings specifically that stating laws against marriage equality are against the constitution. Ben made similar arguments to President Obama at a protest before the fall elections when it was first ruled that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was unconstitutional.
He asked how she would react if they were an interracial couple. Would she deny them in that instance even though it has been ruled unconstitutional? He was met with the same lines. Talk to the legislature to change the laws, talk to the Secretary of State office about getting a domestic partnership. The problem with domestic partnerships is that they create a separate but equal system that is inherently flawed. If it were actually equal to marriage, there would be no reason for different names.
He brought up the point that even if he and Danny had been together for 20 years, regardless of their relationship, they would still be denied access to the 1138 Federal rights associated with marriage, simply because they both had penises. Yet he could have married Eliza Chan who Ben only known for about a week simply because she has a vagina. Comically, he stood between Eliza and Danny saying “marriage” and “domestic partnership” as he stepped from one to the other.
After one final question, Ben wished the room a happy Valentine’s Day and walked out the door. He was told later that as the debate escalated, a security guard had entered the office.
Outside, they were asked what they would have done if the auditor had granted them a marriage license. Both approached the action presenting themselves as a hypothetical couple, the idea being to bring light the failures within the system not to actually get married. Had they been offered, they would have accepted the license, being the first same-sex couple in state history to have received a license.