IN NOVEMBER 1990, my lover Patrick Gill and I were denied a marriage license because we are gay.
In a memorandum explaining the District of Columbia's decision, the clerk of the court wrote that "the sections of the . . . code governing marriage do not authorize marriage between persons of the same sex."
By refusing to give us the same legal recognition that is given to heterosexual couples, the district has degraded our relationship as well as that of every other gay and lesbian couple.
At one time interracial couples were not allowed to marry. Gays and lesbians are still denied this basic civil right in the United States -- and around the world.
Can you imagine the outcry if any other minority group was denied the right to legally marry today?
Marriage is more than a piece of paper. It gives societal recognition and legal protection to a relationship.
Marriage confers numerous benefits to spouses; in the district -- alone there are more than 100 automatic marriage-based rights.
In every state in the nation married couples have the right to be on each other's health, disability, life insurance and pension plans. Married couples receive special tax exemptions, deductions and refunds. Spouses may automatically inherit property and have rights of survivorship that avoid inheritance tax.
Though unmarried couples -- both gay and heterosexual -- are entitled to some of these rights, they are by no means guaranteed.
For married couples the spouse is legally the next of kin in case of death, medical emergency or mental incapacity. In stark contrast the family is generally the next of kin for same-sex couples.
In the shadow of AIDS the denial of marriage rights can be even more ominous. A year ago, Patrick and I filed suit against the district alleging twofold discrimination.
First, the district violated its gender-neutral marriage law: Nowhere does its legal code state that a marriage must consist of a man and a woman or that a married couple may not be of the same sex. Second, the district violated its own Human
Rights Act, the strongest in the nation. The law is clearly on our side.
In fact, cases interpreting the act have held that the "eradication of sexual orientation discrimination is a compelling governmental interest."
Moreover, in 1987 the District Court of Appeals elevated anti-gay bias to the same level as racial and gender discrimination.
Some argue that gay marriage is too radical for society. We disagree. According to a 1989 study by the American Bar Association, 8 million to 10 million children are currently being reared in 3 million gay households.
Allowing gay marriage would strengthen society by increasing tolerance. It is paradoxical that mainstream America perceives gays and lesbians as unable to maintain long-term relationships while at the same time denying them the very institutions that stabilize such relationships.
Twenty-five years ago one-third of the United States did not allow interracial marriage. It took a 1967 Supreme Court decision, in Loving vs. Virginia, a case similar to ours, to strike down these discriminatory prohibitions and redefine family and marriage.
Then, as now, those who argued against granting civil rights spoke of morality, social tensions and protection of family values.
L But, now, as then, the real issue is justice vs. oppression.
Craig R. Dean, a lawyer, is the executive director of the Equal Marriage Rights Fund.