(WOMENSENEWS)--As the Episcopal Church, led by its first presiding female bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, comes under intensifying pressure this week from its international Anglican parent church to retract its support for same-sex unions, we can all clearly see that this is a controversial issue with high political stakes.
Rights advocates of every kind should see this as a time of historic opportunity for humanitarian activists to come together and raise a loud cry of support for Schori and gays and lesbians struggling for marriage equality.
Certainly we should expect that support to come in part from the renewed campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been legally and politically intertwined with marriage-equality issues for many years.
But some ERA advocates are instead backing away.
In a recent commentary for Women's eNews, for instance, a longtime ERA proponent, Idella Moore, said the protracted ERA campaign should not get bogged down with the political, legal and cultural ruckus over marriage equality for same-sex couples.
To avoid divisions--both from within the ERA camp and outside it--Moore argued that sexual orientation and sex are different issues that are properly kept apart.
The problem is that sexual orientation and sex are not separable, neither as legal terms nor in terms of people's lives.
In the landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, the 6-3 majority ruled that a Texas sodomy statute furthered "no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual."
This affirmation of privacy for gay and lesbian people could wind up extending to legal protection of the privacy for women to make decisions about abortion.
As sex and sexual orientation are intertwined as legal concepts--with advances for one supporting the other--they are intertwined equally in bisexual and lesbian women's lives.
Marriage equality as an issue emerged for the lesbian and gay community from a long history of struggles and thinking about ways to recognize the families that we choose in meaningful and socially, politically and economically significant ways. There is still a long road to marriage equality, but it is a journey to which we are committed completely and one in which we appreciate the support of heterosexual allies.
Arguing that women's equality can be achieved by women's exclusion of their other identities has been proven short-sighted time and again.
Such arguments were made about suffrage, when some women argued for their right to vote over the enfranchisement of African Americans.
The same was true about reforms for labor laws, women's work for peace and the exclusion of lesbians from the National Organization for Women in 1970.
The arguments may be remade or recast to reflect the particular historical moment, but ultimately they don't work. They only serve to alienate many parties from women's rights.
The ERA was first written by Alice Paul in 1923 as the "Lucretia Mott Amendment" for the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1948. Each year from 1923 until it passed in 1972, it was introduced into Congress.
The ratification deadline for the ERA campaign, which began in 1972, expired in 1982, when the number of state legislatures required to ratify it failed to do so.
But now, 35 years after its congressional passage, ratification hopes are renewed by the precedent of the Madison Amendment on congressional pay. That amendment was ratified in 1992; some 203 years after Congress passed it in 1789.
It would take the support of Congress and perhaps a favorable Supreme Court ruling, but the Madison Amendment could pave the way for ERA ratification too, especially as the number of states that adopt the ERA continues to climb.
In early February, Arizona filed a bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and guarantee gender equality under the U.S. Constitution. If that passes, the ERA, by some measures, could be three states away from ratification.
Strategic Counter Forces
But there is a strategic and persuasive political faction in the United States today that will do all it can to prevent this. It campaigns against the ERA in particular and feminism in general by implying that granting rights to women will destroy families.
The same campaigns suggest that granting rights to women also will extend rights to gays and lesbians, and then to marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.
They are driving wedges between natural allies (like feminists and queers) and having their rhetoric and ideology adopted beyond their circles. We must resist that. In our world, rights can be expanded for many simultaneously and are not achieved at the expense of others.
Sometime in the next six months, the Maryland Judicial Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Deane and Polyak v. Conaway case.
This case, filed in July 2004 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a group of nine Maryland couples and one widower, seeks the right to marry for same-sex couples in the state. The arguments put forth in the case build on the existence of the ERA in Maryland's state constitution.
For the Maryland Judicial Supreme Court to decide that the state can exclude gay and lesbian couples from marriage would be an injustice to all in Maryland, and particularly to gay and lesbian couples like my partner and me. Moreover, it would not strengthen women's work for equality.
The idea that ERA cannot afford to associate itself with marriage equality for same-sex couples overemphasizes the role of gay marriage in the ERA's past defeat and in doing so provides a foundation that allows and even invites lesbian-baiting to once again divide the women's rights community.
We lesbians deserve better than that, and so do women's rights.
Instead of seeking to extricate the ERA from contemporary legal arguments about marriage equality, let's honor the history of lesbian's work for women's rights. Let's support lesbians in the quest for marriage equality and embrace them fully and openly in the movement to pass the ERA.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet based in University Park, Md. She has been working for women's rights and lesbian rights for the past 20 years. You can reach her through http://www.julierenszer.com/.
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