A Long Road to Equality

Walk stars: Mark Metivier (l) and A.J. Goodrich are working for LGBT equality, one step at a time.

Filmmakers take message of same-sex marriage across the nation
by Josef Molnar

It was early April in the scrublands of West Texas when A.J. Goodrich, Mark Metivier, and John Conway walked across the border from New Mexico along Interstate 10. The desert winds were blowing crossways against the group, whipping up the ever-present sand and dust that stung their eyes and skin. They squinted from the glare of the sun as they stared into the distance where the highway stretched over the horizon, all the way to Houston and beyond that to their ultimate destination: Boston.

It’s been a long way to walk from Los Angeles, but their 4,000-mile journey across the nation is bringing attention to the need for same-sex marriage rights and underscoring the LGBT struggle for equality. This seven-month trek, which ends in late summer, began on the California coast near Los Angeles and will conclude in the largest city in Massachusetts, which was the first state to allow same-sex marriage rights.

Along the way, these hikers and their support crew are filming the experience, and they are planning to release a film of the trip in the next year. Entitled The Road Less Traveled, the group hopes their movie will invigorate the gay marriage debate as viewers learn more about their experiences.

Bodies at rest: Mike Metivier (l) and A.J. Goodrich take a well-deserved break from their cross-country trek at the Houston GLBT Community Center in May, while producer John Conway records the event.

Like many movements, the inspiration for the walk came to Goodrich two years ago while he was in the middle of a tirade.

“At that time, I was on a rant about how comfortable and convenient everything is in the modern world, and how I should just sell my stuff and walk across the country,” says the University of Southern California student who is pursuing a master’s degree in film production. “I was engaged to a guy in New York, and I wanted to walk there to meet him and make a point about the need for marriage rights.”

Although the relationship has since ended, Goodrich decided to continue the trip to spread the message about the need for same-sex rights.

“There’s a strong message behind the walk, and I found after my breakup that I still wanted to make the journey,” he says.

One of the greatest barriers to achieving marriage equality for the gay community is the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which was signed into law by President Clinton and the Republican Congress in 1996. The legislation was passed in response to the growing social presence of LGBT people and their inevitable demands for recognition and equality. DOMA defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. According to the act, no state or political subdivision in the U.S. is required to recognize a same-sex relationship that is considered a marriage in another state.

While many religious leaders perform same-sex marriages, the absence of federally supported civil union protections keeps automatic privileges such as inheritance rights, joint adoption as a couple, and spousal retirement and other company benefits from existing. Couples who desire these rights are required to seek legal assistance, and some of the rights are impossible to attain.

Several states have enacted their own legislation to extend many automatic rights to its residents—among them Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, which allow civil unions. A law allowing marriage in California was repealed in 2008, only months after its passage, and challenges to that repeal are ongoing.

Goodrich’s cross-country mission expanded into a documentary project when he got permission from USC to film the experience for his master’s thesis. The project gained early followers, including Metivier, a friend of Goodrich’s who is straight and lived in New York City. Leonora Anzaldua Burke, another film student, is with the group until they arrive in Atlanta, when she will return to California and be replaced by another crew member for the last part of the journey.

Metivier says the movie will support the message of marriage equality, but will also show viewers some unexpected moments.

“This trip is a lot funnier than anyone expected and than anyone imagined,” he says. “A lot of weird stuff is going to come out of this experience. Wherever we go, all people see is a bunch of geeks with cameras, and that’s all they think until they talk to us.”

In addition to filming their trip, the team is documenting their experiences on their website, roadlesstravelledfilm.com, and a radio station in New York is even running regular updates of the team’s progress on its morning program. The site also contains photos, videos, and writings by the participants, as well as a place for supporters to donate to the project, which is entirely self-funded.

In fact, Metivier wants to assemble the disparate writings and experiences of the group into a book about their journey.

While the national attention the group has gotten has raised awareness about the need for same-sex marriage rights, the team has gained an awareness of who they are through the long hours walking along open roads.

Metivier, for example, decided to join the project in November after considering the personal benefits of a cross-country trek. He initially drove the supply car, but a few days into the trip a crew member left, and he has been walking since then. As the walkers spend more time together, the need for conversation eventually fades and each person is left with their own thoughts.

“This has been a weird experience because it’s also a trip in my head,” Metivier says. “I’ve been processing everything and realizing how much has changed for me in the last few months.”

As a working actor and a nightclub manager, his friends and associates continually praised him for his achievements, but inside Metivier was feeling differently.

“I was secretly having a nervous breakdown,” he says. “I was living a lifestyle I didn’t want, and now that I’m on the road, I have a better idea of all of that. I’m getting to be okay with the person I actually am, instead of who people think I should be.”

While the trip has given the group the benefits of introspection, it has also had physical benefits. When the group started in February, they averaged 15 to 20 miles of walking a day, but after a few weeks, their bodies adjusted to the extra exercise. Goodrich says his fitness has improved in the last 2,000 miles.

“I was in decent shape, but I hadn’t done anything close to this,” he says. “I walked around L.A. before I started this trip, but there’s no way to prepare for something this extreme, except to just do it.”

The group has also witnessed an historic event: on the way to New Orleans they encountered the recent flooding of the basin around Baton Rouge, which destroyed neighborhoods and changed lives.

“Our timing was ridiculous, and it’s interesting that we came to the city at the very time that this was happening,” Metivier says. “Going from Houston, which hasn’t had rain in six or seven months, to another state with flooding and homes being destroyed—it’s pretty amazing how that happens.”

The trip along America’s highways and through its cities and towns has introduced the team to thousands of people, and the experience has given them the opportunity to explain their mission to the people they meet.

“Along the way, it’s impossible to know what we’ll run into and who we’ll meet,” Goodrich says. “We could be struggling against winds one day, and then someone invites us to their home and we’re relaxing in a hot tub the next day.”

While Goodrich says he was “both excited and a little nervous” about walking through the traditionally conservative Texas, he says his experience was generally positive. One of the exceptions took place in Pearland, a town south of Houston, where the filmmakers were staying in an area used by other travelers. Burke had just joined the group, and the nighttime visit, along with the transfer of her many belongings to the recreation vehicle, caused concerned onlookers to promptly call the police.

“We woke up at five in the morning to banging on the door,” Metivier says. “It was the Pearland drug enforcement team with dogs and everything.”

After being questioned outside in their nightclothes for more than an hour, the group was released to their ransacked vehicle, but the event gave them an opportunity to hear a story they might not have otherwise heard.

“One of the neighbors was coming home during the raid, and he came by to see what happened,” Goodrich says. “We found out his wife had left him for another woman many years ago, and we got a chance to hear his story. He was understandably upset about it at first, but now they keep in touch.”

?Throughout their travels, most people they meet have been supportive of their film project, Goodrich says.

“Even when we have a difference of opinion, people respect the fact that we’re walking across the country,” he says. “We talk about anything we think of, including the gay marriage thing, but a lot of the time we also talk about what’s going on in the country and what’s going on in our government.”

Some of those topics don’t always extend to the obvious.

“In Arizona we met coyote hunters who didn’t care about gay marriage, but they asked us, ‘What do you think about the meat industry?’” Goodrich says.

After the first half of the trip, which was through mostly arid environs, Metivier and Goodrich appreciated their time in Houston and the media event that allowed them to speak with local residents.

At one point during his five-day visit, Metivier reflected on his experiences in the states through which he had already walked.

“Texas has been, by far, the most surprising state,” he says. “I am just realizing how green it is; I imagined it as a desert area like in the movies. There is such a change in the climate and the surroundings from one part of the state to another.”

The friendliness of the residents and their reception in cities such as Austin and Houston seem to have provided some relief to the weary travelers, who admit the impact of their nationwide project is becoming more apparent by the day. When I contacted them on a breezy and cool afternoon and caught them relaxing after a day of sightseeing, Metivier and Goodrich were in good spirits about their project and their experience so far.

“A.J. and I were standing outside saying, ‘I love Texas,’” Metivier says.

Goodrich is confident that marriage equality will become a reality in the U.S., and films like his will help to advance the need for federal recognition of same-sex unions.

“Progress can be made,” he says in an online statement. “Like a 4,000-mile journey, it just takes one step at a time.”


Righting Marriage Rites

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office in 2004, federal support of marriage grants a couple 1,138 rights, in addition to the many rights offered by states. The Lambda Legal Defense Fund has released a list of some of the rights granted by the government to married individuals, such as the right to:

• joint parenting
• joint adoption
• joint foster care, custody, and visitation (including non-biological parents)
• status as next-of-kin for hospital visits and medical decisions where one partner is too ill to be competent
• joint insurance policies for home, auto, and health
• dissolution and divorce protections such as community property and child support
• immigration and residency for partners from other countries
• automatic inheritance in the absence of a will
• joint leases with automatic renewal rights in the event one partner dies or leaves the house or apartment
• inheritance of jointly-owned real and personal property through the right of survivorship (which avoids the time, expense, and tax liabilities in probate)
• benefits such as annuities, pension plans, Social Security, and Medicare
• spousal exemptions from property tax increases upon the death of one partner who is a co-owner of the home
• veterans’ discounts on medical care, education, and home loans
• joint filing of tax returns
• joint filing of customs claims when traveling
• wrongful death benefits for a surviving partner and children
• bereavement or sick leave to care for a partner or child
• decision-making power with respect to burial and cremation
• crime victims’ recovery benefits
• loss of consortium tort benefits
• domestic violence protection orders
• judicial protections and evidentiary immunity.

Most of these legal and economic benefits cannot be arranged through legal documents; for example, without a civil marriage there is no guaranteed joint responsibility to the partner and to others in such areas as child support, debts to creditors, and taxes. However, a lawyer with experience in same-sex partnership needs can provide many of these protections through a well-written will and supplemental documents.

Earlier this year, at the direction of President Barack Obama, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would cease legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act’s Section 3 because he considers the legislation unconstitutional. In a separate letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, Holder noted that Congress will still have an opportunity to participate in these lawsuits in the Department of Justice’s absence.

Progress can be made…one step at a time.

Josef Molnar is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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