Following the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down DOMA, Greek Reporter interviewed a prominent voice for human rights and marriage equality - trial and appellate attorney Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas – about being gay and Orthodox. We should also throw in that he’s a Republican as well.
Several Greek-Americans hav
e had high-profile roles in America’s marriage debate, including Ted Boutros and Theane Evangelis Kapur, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case. Another, Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas, a trial and appellate attorney who practices exclusively in federal court, was a counsel to former Republican Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. of Maryland; he is a leading conservative proponent of the freedom to marry, helping Maryland become one of the first states to enact marriage freedom by popular vote.
Please explain what the United States Supreme Court decided in the recently issued marriage cases, Perry v. Hollingsworth and Windsor v. United States?
First, by way of background, Windsor involved a challenge to The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. That law mandated that no matter what any States said about marriage, the federal government would not recognize same-gender marriages. Perry involved a challenge by two couples to California’s Proposition 8, a voter ballot initiative that amended the state’s constitution to prohibit same-gender marriage.
In Windsor, Justice Kennedy, a Republican-appointed justice by the way, writing for the Supreme Court, said that there was no good reason to treat same-gender couples differently for the purposes of federal law. As a result, the federal government will now have to treat same-gender couples the same way it treats lawful marriages of different-gender couples for all federal statutes and programs. The Court said DOMA improperly and unconstitutionally placed same-gender couples in “an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage”; demeaned the couples; “humiliate[ed] tens of thousands of children” being raised by same-gender couples; and denigrated the integrity and closeness of these families.
In Perry, because ProtectMarriage, a private group that pushed for Proposition 8 and tried to defend the law, had no right to do so, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and, by doing that, upheld the trial court’s decision to return the freedom to marry to California, a decision that said that marriage is a fundamental right for everyone, including same-gender couples.
What is your take on the impact of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions?
The decisions drive the momentum of equal rights, for everyone, forward in a major way. They represent a watershed moment in America’s long journey – and struggle – to make the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – real for everyone. The rationale for the DOMA case likely paves the way, provides the roadmap for marriage freedom for all couples, for full equality and respect for all citizens in the United States.
Beyond the legal consequences, the decisions say to so many people they should trust that they are — and can be — loved because of (not in spite of) who they are.
The Greek Orthodox Church has taken the position against civil marriage for same-gender couples, arguing that procreative, emotional, psychological benefits in which families derive from marriage, combined with religious teachings on traditional marriage, justify the status quo. Do you think there’s any merit to the Church’s position?
First, I am not a priest or a theologian; I am a lawyer. Legally, I do not think the Church’s position has merit; there’s no good reason to deny same-gender couples the freedom to marry. Moreover, there is a separation in the United States between Church and State and there is freedom of religion. Today, there are Christian denominations that sanctify same-gender marriages. Obviously, there are Christian denominations and other religions that do not. Permitting same-gender couples to marry under the civil law will not force any religion to sanctify a same-gender marriage. As important in the context of public policy, civil marriage freedom removes government from the religious discussion, treating all couples equally under the law and permitting faiths to define the relationships they wish to sanctify, which is as it should be.
With respect to the merits of the Church’s position, I disagree with the rationale against civil marriage freedom. Scientific studies support the position that orientation is not a matter of choice. Scientific studies support the position that children raised by same-gender couples do just as good – or in some cases better – than children raised in opposite gender households. The Church makes much of the importance of marriage, the well-being of children in stable households and establishing of support obligations. But none of that is different for committed same-gender couples who do marry. The same bonds that exist between opposite gender couples that strengthen families, provide better homes for raising children, and positively impact communities exist between same-gender couples. To know people who are attracted to the same-gender, to be a member of the community, is to know that the love that leads to their marriages is no different, no less worthy or legitimate.
I also find it troubling that many of the arguments against inter-racial marriage are many of the same grounds upon which the Church rests its opposition to civil marriage freedom. That should give all opponents of civil marriage freedom pause, if not inspire a change of heart.
What impact do you think the Supreme Court decisions should have on the Church’s position?
I will not argue biblical interpretation with the Church, and I do not seek today a change in Church doctrine. And I will not suggest that legal decisions should affect Church doctrine. If I can be permitted a brief moment to step away from the civil law, however, I will say this: I agree with the Church about the importance of divine truths, but sometimes in human history those truths may have always been there but we haven’t always readily seen them. I trust in the Church, I trust that God’s divine plan will reveal itself.
What I hope the decisions will do now is have the Church move from opposition to civil marriage freedom, agreeing to disagree, and change its message, which has a significant effect in making families and people feel inferior, causing immense torment, pain and suffering. Although I reject any attempt to blame the Church for doing this purposefully, the Church’s strong statements against civil marriage freedom have no doubt contributed to youth questioning whether to live or die, to save their families from the pain and suffering of living with a gay or lesbian child. That should be untenable. So long as a child can still be raised in a home, in a community that doesn’t recognize her worth, her normalcy, and her value, the Church should join with civil rights advocates to overcome the fear and ignorance that hurts and takes away so many lives.
While the Church will disagree with civil marriage freedom and question same-gender relationships, its message needs to be that we are all in this life together, all God’s children, with equal worth and value. The Church can – and should be – at the forefront in dealing with the marginalized and promote a culture of understanding, respect, and love. I hope these decisions will inspire the Church to work with same-gender couples who do marry under the civil law to remain a part of the faith, contribute to the Church community, amplify God’s love with strong families and service, and raise their children in the Church. Inclusion and love should be the direct result of the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions.
You personally have been a particularly vocal proponent of equal rights. Do you feel you are ‘sinner,’ as the Church suggests, because you are gay?
I am sinner because I am human. There are a lot of sins and, personally, I do not think that God creates people with a sin beyond the original one. I leave it to the Church to define sins though – I have a hard enough time deciphering the civil law or, for that matter, whether I’m committing a sin by not fasting each Wednesday and Friday.
The bottom line, I tried to change my orientation, spending hours upon hours in so-called reparative therapy and even exposing myself to shock therapy to try to break me of my natural feelings. It did not work. Recently, the Evangelical organization Exodus International, which ran reparative therapy programs, admitted what I knew, that what they did was wrong and harmful. Reputable medical organizations have consistently said that conversion or reparative therapy does not work and instead exposes a significant risk of harm to the individual. For the overwhelming majority of people who identify as gay or lesbian, there is no choice; there was no choice for me. It would take me hours to take you through over thirty years of struggle and among the worst moments anyone could envision having in combating something so hard and so strongly and to fail because there was nothing that could be done. I do not believe God makes mistakes. And it’s interesting that Jesus himself said nothing about same-gender relationships.
Do you believe you can be gay and Greek Orthodox?
Simply, yes. My own experience confirms that. During my struggle over my orientation, I turned to my faith a lot. I kept returning to a belief that is the core of our Greek Orthodox tradition, that the heart of Jesus Christ cries out for love and truth. Surely I thought He doesn’t want me hating myself. I kept going back to something St. Paul wrote, that “[f]or everything created by God is good…” And I kept reading this passage, given to me as I prepared for the Bar exam by someone I admire and respect: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will… gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’” Jeremiah 29: 10-14.
Being gay is an important part of who I am, but it does not define me; how I live my life does define me and that is what is important when it comes to being Greek Orthodox. As I told the Pappaspost.com recently, despite what some may perceive in our Church as a physical disability, God made me this way for a reason, and I can try to reflect His image by doing good works, by making a difference in the lives of others, by caring for my neighbor, and by treating all people with respect and love. Being gay does not prevent me from amplifying God’s love. So, in my view, my life does not conflict with the teachings of Jesus and Orthodoxy. I believe I can be – and have been – fully immersed in the life of Church.
Can you touch on what the response to your “coming out,” and/or public advocacy in support of civil marriage freedom, has been in your own Greek community?
As I also told Pappaspost.com, I came out very late in life. So based on really a quarter-century of life experience in my church – volunteering in the festivals and helping the church in other ways, I had earned the community’s respect and continue to maintain it. My church and broader Greek community by and large continues to see me for who I am based on the content of my character and not by some arbitrary characteristic I cannot control or change.
Where do you think gay people stand in the Church, and how do you think parishioners and the Church treat the community?
In many places, and I know this is not the case in every place, I have found that Church leaders and priests do their best to show unconditional love, to embrace everyone, including gay and lesbian parishioners. I think it’s generally the case, whether at Church or not, that people act with compassion for those they know. I think often times we get into trouble when we act on assumptions about those we don’t, based on stereotypes and fears of the unknown. And the Supreme Court decisions, by continuing to allow people to come out of the shadows, will improve the way people are treated and accepted. Knowing people changes people. It will change communities of all types for the better.
Is it difficult to be Greek Orthodox when the Church suggests there’s something wrong with you?
After shock therapy, reparative therapy, counseling (religious and otherwise), and just so many difficult moments in getting to this place in my life, I am now unapologetic about who I am. I think the Church has this issue wrong. I don’t dwell on it. I agree to disagree with the Church on one issue, a Church that nonetheless provides immense value and hope to my life. I am a proud member of the Greek Orthodox Church, striving every day to be worthy of His love, example and teachings.
Is a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” possible for you, given the Church’s stance?
I think I need to find someone willing to marry me first before I can talk about what a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” will look like regardless of the Church’s position. My faith will always be an important part, an essential part of my life, and incorporated in everything I do. I’m confident I’ll have that wedding.