Tax Day in New Haven has come and gone again this year, as it always does, mostly without comment. Returns have been filed, post offices across the United States have served up late-night donuts and coffee, and tax firms can look forward to a year off before the rush begins again. And all across America, gay and lesbian couples, who are forced to fill out their tax forms as individuals, have been given another cruel yearly reminder that their relationships are not yet recognized as equal anywhere in the United States.
Even the gay and lesbian couples granted the nation’s first marriage certificates in Massachusetts in May will still be forced to file separate returns because the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Amendment, signed by President Bill Clinton and voted for by Representative Rosa DeLauro, prevents the federal government from recognizing gay and lesbian couples in any way, shape or form. So Tax Day, other than the usual annoyances, is a bitter holiday.
Almost a year ago today, hundreds of people gathered in front of New Haven City Hall to mark Tax Day with a protest against the vicious homophobia that had been displayed at a hearing of the Domestic Partnership Amendment, a bill that would have provided a limited measure of recognition and support to the city’s gay and lesbian couples. The rest of the story is familiar one: 15 Aldermen, a majority of those present, voted in favor of the amendment, but could not muster the final vote needed to pass it. But an important conversation was taking place in New Haven for the first time in 10 years.
Make no mistake about it. New Haven, despite its Northeastern location and fidelity to the Democratic Party, is deeply divided on the question of equal rights. While a consensus is growing among many Democratic elected officials that gay and lesbian couples deserve recognition, there is not necessarily a clear majority that supports full equal rights in the only form in which they can come: marriage. The lone Republican, Arlene DePino and disappointingly, the lone Green, Joyce Chen, who will deliver the minority party address to the Board of Aldermen, demonstrate no such commitment to equality or respect, and they are joined by a number of Democratic aldermen.
The voting public in New Haven makes up an even more complicated portrait than their representatives. From Fair Haven to the Hill, from Westville to Dixville and Newhallville, equality is fiercely opposed — and unfortunately, often less fiercely — championed. A year ago, the prospect of equal marriage rights was unimaginable, but the Lawrence v. Texas decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Goodridge versus Department of Public Health decision in Massachusetts have increased the pace of progress. The debate in New Haven has adjusted accordingly, but uncomfortably — our opponents have long railed against the extension of civil marriage rights, and it is only recently that we have begun to ask for more.
We will win this fight in Connecticut, and we will win it on the federal level as well, but only if we win in New Haven first. Ultimately, the fight for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people will be a failure if we fight our battles only in the legislatures, and not in our neighborhoods, churches, and community centers. In New Haven, it is far easier for us to work directly within the well-traveled channels of elected officials, and challenge them to take principled stands regardless of what their constituents think; we make them heroes for standing up to popular opinion.
But we have a rare opportunity, one less exciting and dynamic than the gathering on Tax Day a year ago, but with greater long term potential in both the Connecticut legislature and New Haven’s neighborhoods. A petition drawn up by a diverse group of activists and community leaders will begin circulating this week, calling for full equality, no compromises. Asking for signatures on this petition forces the supporters of civil rights to have the difficult conversations with our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow parishioners that have been avoided in this city for far too long.
It’s time for equal rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, to be a litmus test in New Haven; in the same way that racism and anti-Semitism are intolerable, all compassionate city residents and all of those fighting for justice must completely, decisively, and publicly reject homophobia. Any signatures of major community organizers and religious leaders that are absent from the final petition will be conspicuous, and they will be noticed. Worries about coalitions have kept some in New Haven out of this dialogue and this movement for far too long; we should all travel the high road, and travel it together. Let’s make a commitment to mark the next Tax Day with celebration or with protest, but a renewed commitment to equality on every street, and in every house in New Haven.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a sophomore in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.