Amendment One: Just Say ‘No’
On May 8, North Carolinians will vote on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution which would permanently ban the already-illegal act of same-sex marriage. For proponents, Amendment One is a protection of “traditional values.” For sane people, it’s an affront to civil liberties, a redundant salt-in-the-wound insult and a step backwards for social progress in the South.
By Grayson Currin
I am a 28-year-old, educated and white music critic. I am not married, but I am not single. My girlfriend and I live in a rented ranch home close to downtown Raleigh. We have a good-sized yard and a dingy hammock out back. We have two dogs, one cat, two cars, a lot of records and too many cooking tools to fit our postage-stamp kitchen. We would like to buy a house within the next year; we’ve been meeting with realtors, and truth be told, I’ve been fixing my credit. Again, we’re not married, but I think fairly soon, we will be.
I assume that you’re thinking, “Well, good for you.” I’ve started a little family, and soon enough, my girlfriend and I will bind these last few years by law. But then again, maybe my byline has you confused. Sure, in elementary school in a small rural N.C. town, the family name my parents gave me could be a bother, as being called “Gayson” or being told your name is weird is fun for only so long. But I’ve known as many girl Graysons as boy Graysons, and maybe you have too. So am I gay? Straight? Some variant thereof?
Does it matter?
Actually, yes, it does: The United States government does not yet recognize same-sex marriage. And in North Carolina, same-sex marriage actually isn’t legal, either. In fact, only six of 50 American states (and the District of Columbia) allow same-sex marriage — three through legislation, three through a judicial ruling. In the rest of the states, the issue gets either vastly complicated or decidedly clear: California’s stance on gay marriage is a spider web of policy, while Washington and Maryland are close to granting same-sex licenses, but not there yet. More than 40 states either ban same-sex marriage constitutionally or within their own state code.
On May 8, in a statewide referendum, North Carolina voters will decide whether this state’s constitution also needs this explicit amendment: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”
Lucky for me, I guess, I am indeed a 28-year-old, educated and white man. I say ‘I guess’ because, in 2012, nationwide legislative attacks on issues of women’s health care largely by groups of stodgy white men sometimes make this group a troubled one with which to identify. But so it is: When the time comes to tie the knot with my girlfriend, there will be no great political hand-wringing. We’ll simply do the thing much like it has long been done.
We can’t say the same for many of our gay friends, of course, many of whom have been in committed relationships even longer than us. They will still not have the right to marry in the state they call home, and they’ll also be reminded of that fact by an unnecessary and hurtful addition to the state’s constitution — for North Carolina, the first of its kind, Amendment One. What’s more, the recognition of long-standing civil unions, whereby unmarried partners can enjoy the legal benefits and protections of their partnership, would be over. As the Coalition to Protect NC Families posits, unwed women could lose the harbor of domestic violence laws, while unmarried partners could forfeit the ability to visit one another in the hospital. Children of heterosexual or homosexual unmarried couples could miss insurance benefits or visitation rights.
All this to say: Amendment One isn’t a gay-versus-straight issue; it’s a tolerance-versus-intolerance issue, an attempt to force people into normalcy in exchange for rights they deserve as, well, people.
So I called Michael Taylor, another straight and white and educated man, to ask him how he felt about it all. He moved from California to North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and son, Elijah, in Durham.
On the phone, Taylor immediately admits he’s not a very political person, but he is a Christian who wrestles with his issues of faith in his splendid folk-rock band Hiss Golden Messenger. He can’t abide the claims of his fellow Christians who claim this amendment is the right way. No, this, he says, is the ignorant, spitefully conformist way.
“I think that it’s cowardly and a cop-out and very, very un-Christian. People that are truly in the spirit truly understand that it’s just the wrong thing to do. Jesus Christ wouldn’t have been behind it,” he says. “And what does this tell our children? When I’m trying to explain to my son that some of his friends’ parents can’t get married and are not thought of in the same way as his mom and dad because they are gay, that doesn’t make sense. It’s embarrassing.”
. . .
That embarrassment won’t come quietly, at least. All across the Carolinas, musicians are making stands that are either intimate or extensive, speaking out as much on behalf of gay rights as they are mutual respect. When I started researching this story, I e-mailed about 20 musicians — married, straight, gay, bi, ambivalent, black, brown, white, whatever — across the Carolinas, asking if they had and would like to share strong views on Amendment One. All but two responded within an hour, one even volunteering a late-night/early-morning phone call from a European tour stop. They wanted to share their feelings.
In Asheville, the band Alligator Indian is releasing a free digital single of an archival tune about marriage equality, packaged now with new remixes by like-minded North Carolinians. Their aim — as member Christian Church puts it – is to “help spread the word and get people to the polls May 8.” The goal is a humble but most essential one.
“We have a song on our upcoming LP that we wrote a few years back about marriage equality,” Church explains. “We’re planning on releasing it as a digital single before the vote and ask people to spread the word online about the vote in exchange.”
In Durham, Heather McEntire of the bands Mount Moriah and Bellafea is organizing a massive gathering of music and speeches for early May. The goal is more about awareness than money.
“I just want to open all of Main Street and invite everyone,” says McEntire, who is bisexual and has been in a partnership with a woman for the last four years. “I think what we’re going to do is going to unify people. All we can do is fight in our own way — playing, organizing, singing and knowing that all the people there are behind this fight.”
If this fight needs an anthem, McEntire actually wrote it two years ago and released it last year on Mount Moriah’s self-titled debut. A steely shuffle that balances child-like kindness and adult-like resolve, “The Reckoning” is an open letter of sorts to her mother. It’s a sweet but stern explanation that her daughter’s love for and happiness with her girlfriend should matter more than whatever the Bible might say about the matter.
This is the lasting kind of love, McEntire tells her mother, the kind that makes her ready for the future. She’s suffered for this family, lived through its worst times; now, she needs to be accepted for who she actually is. In the galvanizing chorus, McEntire draws a line in the heavenly sky between herself and the past, between ideals and actual family matters: “If your old book says it’s true/ Back of your knees locked to the seat of the pew/ If this is painful and pure/ I will reckon you.”
McEntire grew up in western North Carolina in a largely conservative family; her parents worked for Billy Graham. For years, she led a double life: she was open about her sexuality within the supportive communities of Durham, Chapel Hill or indie rock at large; back at home, she had to hide the truth.
“The bubble that we live in here is pretty progressive. I was out to everyone, and it helped me become really confident,” she says. “But I’d go back to the mountains, and it was really hard to come out and stay out. It felt like this enormous weight I was carrying around for 15 years, and I’m still not out to everyone in my family.”
Coupled with the battle of Amendment One, the act of having written such an autobiographical song has made her reconsider that stance. She’s thinking about coming out to everyone. This vote, she says, is a chance to open a dialogue, showing her more rural family and friends that being gay isn’t just some aberrant thing that happens in the big cities — and that discrimination affects people you love, people you went to high school with, people whose groceries you carried as a kid.
“Letting someone in those small towns know that they know someone who is struggling with this issue is important,” she explains. “This isn’t just about me, this person in your family. Let’s let this start an openness, not with the expectation that this will change any minds. Visibility is so important.”
In all of the bands she’s ever led, McEntire has only played with one other gay person — and that was a temporary fix for a member who couldn’t tour. Until our conversation, she’d never actually considered that fact or its implications. Essentially, McEntire’s strange place of singing songs that are occasionally about the struggles of being gay in the South while leading a band of heterosexuals points to the underlying fallacy of legislation like Amendment One — that is, that the queer community is somehow less important or deserving of its rights and places in this world than the rest of us.
An hour or so after our conversation, McEntire e-mailed some more thoughts on her position out front of Mount Moriah, as if realizing the potency of that parable for the first time.
“They’ve watched me have to be self-conscious about my identity in a way that they weren’t, and they have wanted to talk about it. Even from their white heterosexual male perspective, they have wanted to try and understand it,” she wrote of her bandmates. “They have been instrumental in me developing the confidence to confront my family and stand up for myself, to tell my story.”
. . .
If Mount Moriah wrote the anthem by which to rally against Amendment One, Justin Robinson & The Mary Annettes are the full-band equivalent. A biracial five-piece from Durham, one female member is single, another is engaged and another is married. Drummer Josh Stohl is married to a woman, while bandleader and namesake Robinson has been married to Thaddaeus Edwards, a man, for nearly three years. They got married in Boston while Robinson was still a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That marriage isn’t recognized by the state that Robinson, a Gastonia native, has always called home; if Amendment One passes, their five-year partnership won’t be recognized, either.
“We decided to get married because we wanted to. I’m not sure what it means on a more philosophical level,” says Robinson, talking about his relationship with the press for the first time. The Carolina Chocolate Drops chose not to make an issue of it because, as a black-string band, they already had enough things to explain. “People at this stage in this country only get married because they want to. There’s no amount of societal pressure that forces people to get married if they don’t want to — not kids, not parents.”
The Chocolate Drops focused on saving old songs and sounds from complete obscurity, often playing the role of conservationists or historians for the roots-music crowd. When I ask Robinson about whether or not he ever considered the irony of old white music fans listening to a young black gay man play string-band music, he laughs and admits that, indeed, some of that audience might have been uncomfortable with his orientation.
“It never had anything to do with the music. You can extrapolate and say, ‘Because of this, then this.’ But you can do that with anything,” he explains. “It never really came up because we weren’t popular enough for people to be asking those kind of poignant questions. Going to mainstream country or something on CMT, that might be a different story.”
The Mary Annettes, though, offer a future vision of what folk music could sound like, taking polyglot turns through several different strains. There’s hip-hop and Appalachian tunes, indie-rock balladry and a touch of (thanks to Stohl) Klezmer. Their songs are testaments to integration or at the very least cooperative creation, where old ideas get stronger by colliding, fracturing and forming something new. When Stohl answered Robinson’s “Musician Wanted” advertisement on Craigslist, he didn’t know that Robinson was black, gay or a Grammy winner; he just knew that the music Robinson was mentioning sounded fascinating
“We see ourselves on a continuous timeline, meaning you should reach back and forward at the same time, if possible,” explains Stohl, speaking not only to the music the band makes but, indirectly, to its strangely unified roster. “We don’t have a religious or political agenda, but just by the five of us coming together, we are providing some sort of social commentary. What we represent is people coming together from different backgrounds. They contribute to what is going on, but they don’t define it.”
. . .
Kym Register is the other chief organizer of Durham’s election-week rally Heather McEntire is staging in Durham. Register has lived in the city all her life, and the 30-year-old has been openly gay since she was 16. She plays in the band Midtown Dickens and co-owns the downtown bar The Pinhook, which has become a somewhat accidental pub not only for queer people within the Triangle but throughout the Southeast.
The Pinhook hosts queer film and dance nights, not to mention bands whose content often approaches that of polemics on sexuality. That said, The Pinhook also welcomes sweaty, nasty, virile garage rock and scabrous heavy metal, stuff that has nothing to do with queer politics.
“People call, and they’re like, ‘Is this a gay bar?’ It’s hard for people to understand it doesn’t need to be one or the other,” Register says. “Everyone should feel comfortable.”
That’s exactly how The Pinhook operates, too — as an open place, where expression and inclusion are valued and welcomed above all else. Ultimately, Register’s not trying to exclude anyone. That’s how the world should work, she says. On May 8, she runs the risk of being legally excluded from something as basic as marriage by the state that raised her.
“We just have to educate people,” she says. “I believe in the general desire of people to do good. I think it can all work out.”