By Shannon Brennan
Lynchburg News and Advance
Sunday, October 5, 2003
Mel White has been in a committed, loving relationship for 22 years – with a man.
So there’s no guarantee that when White dies, his partner Gary Nixon can get his Social Security benefits, his pension or even his property. Only a marriage license can guarantee those things.
Gay couples in this country are not afforded the 1,000-plus legal benefits that come with a state-sanctioned marriage.
"We’re not asking for the r-i-t-e-s of marriage, we’re asking for the r-i-g-h-t-s of marriage," White said.
But many people have a hard time separating the religious aspect of marriage from the civil contract. The pastor at the church that White and Nixon attend many Sundays is no exception.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, now 70, has said he will dedicate the rest of his life to supporting a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
"Jerry has, in fact, become the No. 1 obstacle to our civil rights," White said.
Falwell’s continuing attack on homosexual behavior is what convinced White and Nixon to move to Lynchburg from California a year ago. For months, they lived across from Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in a tiny house before moving to another neighborhood. They still attend his church when they’re in town.
But Falwell and White, a man who ghost wrote Falwell’s autobiography, no longer have a dialogue about reducing violence toward the gay community – as they did four years ago when Soulforce first came to the Hill City.
"If he thinks we’re going to rewrite the Bible … he has another thing coming," Falwell said.
Falwell is the reason that Lynchburg has become the focal point of White’s Soulforce, an organization dedicated to ending what the group calls "spiritual" violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people.
Local and national members of Soulforce and 27 other organizations will gather in Lynchburg next week for a Gay Pride Fest that will include a forum on civil marriage equality and a vigil outside of Thomas Road Baptist Church.
"He’s certainly welcome to hold his vigils at our church," Falwell said.
White says he will continue to do so because Falwell has said repeatedly that gays are trying to destroy heterosexuality and the American family.
"He’s breaking the commandment on bearing false witness against his neighbor," White said. "He’s creating fear where there’s no reason for it."
By preaching an anti-homosexual message at his church and Liberty University, Falwell is convincing parents of gays that they should abandon their children, White said. And he’s doing terrible damage to the gay students who attend his university, White said.
"Jerry single-handedly is doing more to destroy families than anybody else," White said.
Falwell says he is not destroying families, but trying to preserve them.
"I spent all day in Washington (Wednesday) meeting with Dr. James Dobson and other pro-family leaders, and with leaders of Congress, concerning a constitutional amendment to define marriage forever as one man married to one woman," Falwell said.
Falwell said the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, already defines marriage that way, but he is convinced the Supreme Court will one day overturn it.
"It is adequate if the federal courts allow it to stand," Falwell said of DOMA, "but the federal courts are showing a continuing desire to ban traditional values from the public square and even recently legalized sodomy in the Texas case."
Falwell said that many people will continue to violate the biblical and legal definition of marriage, including unmarried heterosexual couples and polygamists, but the state should not give them benefits for their behavior.
"The idea is we don’t reward it with tax money," he said.
Falwell remains convinced that people choose to be gay.
"One is not born gay or born a promiscuous heterosexual," Falwell said. "Those are choices we make."
Falwell said Mel White abandoned his wife and children so he could shack up with his male lover, and that is ignoble.
White said if Falwell had a gay grandson or lesbian granddaughter, he might understand that people don’t choose their sexual orientation. He still holds out hope that Falwell will come around, as he did on the issue of desegregation.
White said his organization has 100,000 letters from people who think they’re lives are lost because of the attacks on their sexual orientation. He said he can’t bear to read his email any more.
"Jerry’s wasting lives with all this hyperbole," White said.
White said he wishes Falwell would address poverty, homelessness, empire building.
"He refuses to deal with the real issues that are a threat to this country," he said.
Falwell replies that he has always addressed such issues and will continue to, but preserving the family is critical to preserving the nation.
Laura Montgomery Rutt, special events coordinator and director of communications for Soulforce, said people are coming to Lynchburg to demonstrate to Falwell that love takes all forms.
"Our families are families, too," she said. "Love makes a family, it’s not the structure."
Rutt said religious institutions can discriminate all they want to when it comes to performing religious rituals. They do all the time, by refusing to marry divorced people or people of mixed religions, for example.
But the government-issued marriage license should not discriminate, she said.
"I see Soulforce as supporting the organizations out there working to change civil law," she said.
One of the speakers at the marriage forum will be Chris Purdom, co-coordinator of the Interfaith Working Group in Philadelphia, which works on equal rights for GLBT people, reproductive freedom and separation of church and state.
Purdom, who is a heterosexual, married with two kids, and a Presbyterian elder, said marriage is a place where separation of church and state has failed.
Ministers should not be signing documents that afford governmental rights. Any marriage ritual, he said, should be distinct from the licensing of marriage.
"A lot of religious institutions have been marrying same-gender couples, but without the license," he noted.
Purdom said the discrimination against gay couples is no different from past discrimination of mixed-race couples.
"It’s really the same question here," he said. "You can’t tell which person is being discriminated against."
Historically, Purdom said, the denial of a marriage contract has been a way to keep certain groups economically disadvantaged. In California, for example, Asians were once banned from marrying so that they could not pass wealth to their children. An earlier example comes from England, which only sanctioned marriage within the Church of England.
Property transfer is not the only concern. Custody issues involving children, medical, end of life and burial decisions can all be usurped by "legal" family members who might not have been involved in a gay person’s life for years, Purdom noted.
While many gay couples use wills and powers of attorney to try to transfer property and legal rights to their significant other, Purdom said too often families contest them and win.
Contact Shannon Brennan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 385-5561.