In April 2011, Bill T. Jones made a video for the Human Rights Campaign’s New Yorkers for Marriage Equality Initiative. The HRC’s campaign found success in New York, with same-sex marriage approved there in June and ratified in July. Gay marriage currently finds itself in a peculiar position in Minnesota, with a proposed constitutional amendment banning it before voters this November. The provision (explained excellently by Minnesota Public Radio in this recent primer piece) will ask Minnesotans whether they want to vote to alter the state constitution to define marriage as “between one man, one woman.” But “even if voters don’t approve the constitutional amendment,” writes MPR’s Paul Tosto, “Minnesota’s legal ban on same-sex marriage doesn’t go away. Gay marriage will still be illegal here.” Thus the ballot measure seems particularly ugly for the empty gesture of its ideology; disconnected from any concrete course of action, the Republican-sponsored bill diverts funds and attention towards an unnecessary polling of the opinions of the state’s voters. How curious in this age of pressing issues that the state Republicans find the time for such gestures, hoping to lock a door that has already been slammed shut.
For his Human Rights Campaign video, Bill T. Jones said, “We all agree that marriage is a fundamental human right, and in our country—in our society—there are no second class citizens.” His language echoes the 1967 Supreme Court ruling of Loving v. Virginia, which overturned the federal ban on interracial marriage: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Same-sex legislation often cites the precedent set by Loving v. Virginia, a case that seems to have particular relevance for aspects of Jones’ life. The public space Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane claimed for their same-sex interracial partnership, both onstage and off, seems possible in part because of Mildred and Richard Loving’s fight for recognition of their interracial marriage during the Civil Rights era. Mildred Loving likely would’ve understood Jones’ grief when he lost Arnie Zane during the first major onslaught of AIDS; she lost her husband, just as randomly, to a drunk driver.
“Part of Bill T. Jones’ advocacy has been the public nature of his relationships over the years,” say Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator for Performing Arts. Among Jones’ many accomplishments is the fearless transparency with which he has lived his life, “as openly, proudly gay in a way few in the highest levels of American performing arts world had been before him,” Bither adds. This public life is partly chronicled in his latest piece Story/Time, which he performs this week.
Indeed, Jones’ personal life sheds some light on the power of same-sex marriage as an issue: relationships with longevity and stability are understood as credible in the public imagination and should be recognized as such. In a January 2012 Out magazine feature about Jones and his partner of 20 years, Bjorn Amelan, Jones said, “If we get married, it’s for the legal reasons. I don’t feel a need for it emotionally. I love him with all of my heart. Marriage is a public acknowledgment. And doing this [article] is more a part of that. So, in a way, in this article, I guess we’re saying, ‘I do thee wed — in the public imagination.’”
As a gay man, I will be voting against the marriage amendment in November. What is less clear to me is the other ways I should engage with the public imagination. I have many friends who say that confining relationships in ways that the state might recognize prevents queer people from defining love on their own terms, with its various arrangements and genders that are not recognized by the state. At the center of the gay marriage debate in Minnesota is opposing views on the family, and most sacredly, fierce debate around the future of children. The conservative organization Minnesotans for Marriage has stated, “Protecting the interests of children is the primary reason that government regulates and licenses marriage in the first instance… [C]hildren do best when raised by their mother and father.” On the other side of the debate is Minnesotans United for All Families, which has stated, “We believe marriage and family are about love and commitment, working together, bettering the community, raising children, and growing old together. We believe in a Minnesota that values and supports strong families and creates a welcoming environment for all Minnesota families to thrive.”
It is disheartening the ways that homosexuals are construed as villains time and again in the lives of children. I think about Sylvia Rivera, Latina trans activist, who died 10 years ago this Sunday, February 19. According to writer Benjamin Shepard, “Sylvia Rivera is credited with throwing the first brick during the Stonewall Riots” in 1969, and she founded, along with her life partner and Andy Warhol model Marsha P. Johnson, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970, which created a homeless shelter for trans street youth: “children” who are rarely mentioned in the ongoing rhetoric about family and child. I am haunted by the image of Marsha P. Johnson’s body floating in the Hudson River (the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death 20 years ago were never investigated by the New York Police Department) and by the challenges people like her will continue to face, even when gay marriage is possible.
If Minnesotans defeat the marriage amendment this November, we will only have defeated a prohibition. Afterwards, we will still need to decide how hard we want to fight to make gay marriage a possibility. And we will need to consider the additional ways we can confront society’s entrenched homophobia and racism, issues that Bill T. Jones has fearlessly tackled throughout his life’s work.