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Symposium on Same Sex Marriage, "Breaking with Tradition," March 4-5


An upcoming conference at Yale Law School will examine how the debate over same-sex marriage has challenged traditional notions of marriage, and how the issue is likely to develop in coming years.

The conference is called "Breaking with Tradition: New Frontiers for Same Sex Marriage" and will take place March 4-5. Further details about the conference schedule and how to register are on the conference website.

Jason Smith '06, one of the organizers of the conference, says that the time is right for this discussion. Not only has the issue become a prominent political issue, but in the last few years, the law around same-sex marriage has changed substantially. In February 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in that state. Then in the November 2004 elections, ballot measures banning same-sex marriage passed in eleven states. Indeed, the debate goes on: the Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering a bill to create civil unions with nearly all the legal rights of marriage.

Smith says that the most widespread interpretation of the 2004 elections is that they were a defeat for gay rights organizations. However, Smith insists, "There's a different story to be told." The Massachusetts decision pushed the issue so far forward that civil unions, which once had seemed radical, are now "the language of compromise." Smith goes on, "We need to step back and take stock of the situation. Where do we go from here?"

"Breaking with Tradition" will be an academic conference, with speakers representing numerous viewpoints, though Smith hopes it will not be divorced from the politics and social realities surrounding the issue. The conference is founded on a point of view, which Smith describes: "We take as our starting point that sexual minorities are equal and should be equal in the eyes of the law." The various panels and speakers will then consider why this simple condition is not always met, and how the law could be changed to promote equality.

The conference will open with a discussion of "The Stakes of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate." Smith says he is looking forward to this panel for the insights of speakers such as William Eskridge, John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence. "He's passionate, energetic, and steeped in the history of the gay rights movement," says Smith. On Saturday, March 5, four additional panels will consider particular aspects of the issue, such as "Federalism and the Same-Sex Marriage Question." As Smith points out, federalism has become a key issue in the same-sex marriage debate, as progressive organizations have found some of their greatest successes in state courts rather than federal courts, which is a reverse of the pattern of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Smith points out that the panel will also consider what the movement for equal marriage rights could potentially lose by focusing on the states.

Each panel will include nonacademic speakers. For instance, Michael Bronski, an author, journalist, cultural critic, and activist, will be on "The Political Spectrum of Same-Sex Marriage." Smith says such speakers will "add a touch of realism." In order to get laws written and influence public opinion, he argues, "You can't leave it at the purely academic level."

Jon Davidson '79 will give a keynote speech at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. Davidson is the legal director of Lambda Legal, the largest and oldest national legal organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and those living with HIV. His talk will close the conference and will aim to synthesize the messages and thoughts from the previous two days.