The Right to Say, “I Do”

By Corina Knoll

Jeff Kim and Curtis Chin say they’ve never really thought about what their own wedding would be like, though they’ve attended dozens of such ceremonies for friends and family members over the 14 years they’ve been together.

They haven’t had a commitment ceremony like other gay couples have, but did toy with the idea of throwing themselves a 10th anniversary party.


“We were gonna ask people to make up for all the weddings,” quips Kim.

“Yeah, for all the gifts we bought!” adds Chin. “The big joke is, we used to just say, on a pure financiallevel, it’s just not fair. We spend thousands of dollars on weddings, and we’re never gonna get that back!”

While it makes for a good punchline, the sentiment is an honest reflection of one of the nuances faced by committed same-sex partners who want to marry, but cannot in every state in the nation but Massachusetts.

Kim and Chin, residents of Los Angeles, feel like they have missed out on a social milestone that brings with it validation of their union, along with an outpouring of love and support.

“It’s societal, it’s traditional, it’s historical, it shows something’s beginning,” says Kim of marriage.

“You get hurt on a very personal level because you know that it’s something you’ll never be a part of,” says Chin.

Well, never say never. Pending before the California Supreme Court are four lawsuits — three filed by 23 same-sex couples and the fourth by the city of San Francisco — challenging the state’s current ban of same-sex marriage that resulted from Proposition 22. The 2000 ballot initiative, passed by 62 percent of the state’s voters at the time, defines marriage as a contract between a man and a woman.

But California’s high court, which has until June 2 to issue its rulings, may just overrule that and grantfull marriage rights to gays and lesbians, say advocates. If that happens, supporters of same-sexmarriage hope similar decisions in other states will follow.

Their high hopes are hinged in large part on the fact that this wouldn’t be the first time the state’s Supreme Court reversed statutes that permitted marriage discrimination. In fact, California has a unique history in this sense. It’s a history that has particular resonance for Asians in America because, like same-sex couples today, they were once denied the freedom to marry the person of their choice, if that person was of a different race.


Anti-miscegenation laws, which banned interracial unions, were in place until the California Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1948 in Perez vs. Sharp. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, ruling in Loving vs. Virginia that no state could prohibit marriage between persons of different races and referred to marriage as one of the fundamental rights of a person.

“We were one of the first states to outlaw the interracial marriage ban,” says Alma Soongi Beck, a Korean American attorney based in San Francisco and advocate of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. “We have court precedent for talking about the fundamental right to marry, and that makes us unique. So I think we have a really good chance.”

Last September more than 60 Asian American organizations signed on to file an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage. The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) based in Los Angeles led the effort.

“The Legal Center looked at this as a civil rights issue, especially one where there were some parallels with our communities’ own struggles around race,” says APALC vice president Karin Wang.

The brief argues that, like past laws that banned interracial marriage, current ones preventing same-sex unions work to keep these groups from fully integrating into society. “In particular, for both groups, government policies that mark the group as different and less worthy of marriage than the majority population have seemed to give tacit approval to other forms of public and private discrimination,” reads the brief, which is meant to appeal to Justices Joyce Kennard and Ming Chin, two of the seven California Supreme Court justices who identify as Asian American.

The fact that so many Asian American groups chose to back the same-sex marriage legal case may surprise some. But Wang says, based on polling done by APALC in 2000 and then 2006, there has been a slight shift toward support of same-sex marriage among APAs.

However, that may not hold true for the Korean American community, specifically, which seems to be still having trouble accepting the same-sex part, let alone the marriage piece.

“The Korean community is probably the hardest nut to crack of the large communities here,” notes Wang. “I think we’ve made stronger forays with the Chinese and Filipinos in particular. I’m not sure they’re necessarily more liberal communities — there’s a heavy church presence in both — but there have been more visibly active people [from those groups] talking about the issue.”


Finding gay and lesbian Korean Americans willing to be identified in this article presented a challenge of its own. One Korean American lesbian who fiercely believes in same-sex marriage rights didn’t want her name revealed because she feared it would upset her parents who don’t discuss her sexual orientation with their friends. Another lesbian couple worried about the effects speaking publicly could have on their daughter.

“There are unique aspects of the Korean American community that make speaking out about these issues somewhat more difficult,” says Stephen Kang, co-founder of the Dari Project, an all-volunteer effort started in 2005 to provide a support network and web-based resources for LGBT Korean Americans.

Kang, 29, attributes this reticence in part to the culture’s emphasis on respect for family. While he has been out to his friends, co-workers and immediate family for more than seven years, he has not said anything to his extended family.

“That is a choice I made because I feel like that’s more my parents’ decision than my decision. Because they would be more directly impacted by my outing myself than I would,” says Kang.

He adds that the heavy influence of the Christian church in the Korean American community also plays a silencing role. “Even for folks who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as very religious, the church is a key factor in their lives, culturally,” he says.

The Church Factor

In fact, discourse on subjects like homosexuality in the Korean community is often overpowered by the church, which plays not only a spiritual role in people’s lives, but also a social one for this still relatively young immigrant population.

“The Korean churches that are most dominant tend to be more [of an] evangelical, kind of orthodox, conservative type of Christianity,” says Angie Chung, author of Legacies of Struggle: Conflict and Cooperation in Korean American Politics. “And they don’t tend to be very politically involved. It’s kind of shocking, but the first time they ever politically organized was on the same-sex marriage issue because they felt this involved a church matter where they interpret the Bible to state that homosexuality is sinful.”

In 2000, several Korean American ministers in Los Angeles and members of their congregations circulated a petition within the community in support of Proposition 22 and took out an ad in a newspaper decrying gay marriage. There was some dissent within the community, including from an organization known as Korean Americans for Civil Rights, but taking a progressive stand may have felt futile in a community that Chung says is “dominated by more conservative voices or people who try to stay neutral.”

Eight years later and the topic may still feel off-limits to some organizations. “Same-sex marriage is a very controversial topic,” says Hyepin Im, president and CEO of Korean Churches for Community Development, a nonprofit faith-based organization that offers couples counseling and various “healthymarriage” initiatives. “I could see that that might not be something where our agency would want to make a public statement for or against.”

That may be because the Christian church is overwhelmingly against gay marriage. The general consensus within Korean churches is that marriage, according to the Bible, is between a man and a woman.

“It’s very clear in the Scripture: Genesis 2, where God creates man and a woman to have them come together to be in a marriage. Ephesians, chapter 5, starting at verse 22, speaks about wives and husbands and their roles in the marriage and that’s very clear,” says the Rev. Ryan Kim of Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco.

“When he created man and woman, one of God’s commands was to go forth and multiply. I know we use scientific methods now, but naturally that’s impossible for a same-sex marriage. It just doesn’t align itself with God’s command for us.”

But while Kim believes being gay or lesbian is a sin and is similar to a sickness, like many other second-generation pastors, he doesn’t believe in signing petitions or proactively opposing gay marriage like his first-generation counterparts. Which may be a sign that while its interpretation of the Bible still sways traditionalist, the Korean church may be moving away from the religious right in how it responds to the issue.

The Rev. Jin Bae of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church of Rowland Heights, Calif., will even admit that some churches’ views on the matter boil down to plain old prejudice.

“Korean society shuns homosexuality as a whole and so when people say they’re just promoting Bible mandate, if we’re really being honest, I think it’s more than the Bible,” says Bae. “It’s our cultural bias reading into it.”

Ending ‘Separate But Equal’

Briefly, in February and March of 2004, it seemed the tide was turning for California same-sex couples when 4,000 of them were issued marriage licenses in San Francisco under the order of Mayor Gavin Newsom. By August that same year, the licenses were invalidated by the California Supreme Court who said Newsom didn’t have the authority to make that directive. Subsequent gay marriage bills have been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

While same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, Belgium, South Africa, Spain and the Netherlands, gay and lesbian Americans’ only option is to marry in Massachusetts. However, thanks to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) signed by President Clinton in 1996, those unions do not have to be recognized by other states nor the federal government. DOMA clearly asserts “no state need treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state” and “the federal government may not treat same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose.”

What figures from the 2000 Census indicate, though, is that no amount of federal and state legislation can keep gay couples from falling in love and forming families.

The U.S. has 594,000 same-sex unmarried-partner households, compared with 4.9 million households of unmarried opposite sex couples, according to the 2000 Census. Nationally, 33 percent of female same-sex households and 22 percent of male same-sex households include biological children under 18. California has the most same-sex households, with 92,000.

A research study by the Williams Project at the UCLA School of Law revealed that 13,000 Asian Pacific Islanders were living with same-sex partners in California during the 2000 Census. They comprise more than a third of the roughly 40,000 APIs in same-sex relationships in the United States.

One should not assume all of those people will go out and marry, should that right be granted to gay and lesbian couples, according to Ju Hui Judy Han. “I worry that marriage, even same-sex marriage, is intrinsically conservative,” says Han, 36, who is a doctoral candidate in geography. “It’s like people have forgotten about the feminist critique of marriage. Marriage is built on idealized notions of the traditional family, and it’s connected to problematic ideas around ‘family values.’“

Still, she adds she is not against same-sex marriage, but she and her Korean American girlfriend do not plan to take part in that institution, though they moved from San Francisco to Vancouver, Canada, where ironically they could marry.

But many other couples who say they’re already emotionally married do plan to make their union legal if the California law is overturned. Curtis Chin and Jeff Kim say they’ll have a ceremony and see an immediate change in their rights and benefits. Kim, 42, a program director for the California Wellness Foundation, will no longer be taxed for having Chin, a writer and producer, on his employer’s health insurance, something that doesn’t happen to his straight colleagues. And Chin won’t have to worry that Kim’s parents have more legal rights than he does.

“I don’t feel protected in the sense that if something were to happen to Jeff, I would not be surprised if his parents cut me out in the sense of being able to see him at the hospital,” says Chin, whose own Chinese American family has been warm and accepting of the couple.

First-generation immigrants, Kim’s parents still struggle with their only son’s sexual orientation and acknowledging his relationship with another man.

“Embarrassment is a huge factor in the Korean community,” says Kim, who does note that his sister is extremely supportive. “[Being gay] would fit in the category of ‘Oh my god, you brought shame to our family.’ That is kind of a way that people and communities control their populace: the shame and embarrassment factor.”

If there is a wedding, he doesn’t think his parents will show up. But, he understands.

“Having grown up in a Christian Korean environment I know where they’re coming from,” says Kim. “There are evil homophobic people — [my parents] aren’t evil. It’s more about ignorance and not wanting to leave their comfort zone than it is about hate.”

While emotions about homosexuality in the Korean community differ, for some, the fight for same-sex marriage is surprisingly less about feelings — as committed gay couples say they’ve already demonstrated their devotion to each other — and more about legal rights and benefits. Marriage — an institution which incidentally has never been administered by the church in the U.S. — is, legally speaking, a civil contract administered by the state.

“From a legal perspective, to truly protect the rights of peo ple, marriage is really the only way to go,” says attorney Alma Soongi Beck, who works on a lot of sticky cases involving estate planning and taxes for unmarried and same-sex couples.

“There are huge tax assumptions that the IRS allows married people that are completely inapplicable to same-sex couples,” she says.

While some states allow gay couples to get a civil union or register as domestic partners, both of which would afford them more benefits, Beck likens the idea to the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared separate public schools for black and white students did not mean equal opportunity.

“You try to do ‘separate but equal,’ but you can’t,” says Beck. “So you might as well make it equal, because if you’re really wanting to give people equal rights, give them full equal rights.”

Marriage and Family

As the current laws stand, gay parents are in a particularly precarious situation in the United States. That’s why Will Halm says the legalese of marriage benefits make up about 75 percent of why he wants to marry Marcellin Simard, his partner of 22 years.

“As parents you’re even more keenly aware of the kinds of legal rights we don’t have that married couples do,” says Halm, who has three children (all born by surrogate) with Simard.

Registered as domestic partners in California, Halm and his family moved to Santa Fe, N.M., 18 months ago when Simard, a cardiologist, was offered a high-powered job. New Mexico, however, does not have domestic partnership laws to help protect their rights as parents. (Halm and Simard each only have parentage rights over the child that is biologically his.)

“There are no judgments you can get for gay couples to declare that they’re the legal parents of their children,” says Halm. “If something were to happen to one of us, we wouldn’t want the children to go to anyone other than the other partner.”

The 56-year-old family law attorney has since thought about obtaining marriage licenses in Massachusetts and Canada, where Simard was born. Although he knows neither would actually give the couple any more legal rights in New Mexico.

“It’s really just trying to build up legal protection as much as you can, just hoping that if you collect enough marriage licenses in your drawer that that would be a powerful thing to present to a court if there should ever be any kind of custody litigation over the kids, if for example one of us were to die or become incapacitated or something like that,” Halm says.

“You can name your partner in a will for example as a legal guardian, but a family law judge doesn’t have to respect what’s in a will if the grandparents come in and decide they want to contest that.”

For the most part, Halm’s family has come to embrace his partner and children, something he recognizes as an anomaly and attributes to the fact that he is third-generation. When he was growing up, Halm went to several Korean American summer camps where he was told there were no gays in Korea, an attitude that caused him to keep his distance from the community. Today, Halm’s not sure that line of thinking has changed a whole lot. “The Korean American community has a ways to go before they’re feeling comfortable about gay and lesbian subjects,” he says.

While his mother would welcome a wedding, Halm says his personal reason for getting married would be to show his commitment to Simard, whom he met through mutual friends in Los Angeles when they were both running art galleries in addition to their day jobs. And also to indulge their 12-year-old daughter who’s been begging to be the flower girl.

But even the question of why Halm wants to get married, he says, is itself an example of how gay couples have to prove their unions to be just as legitimate as heterosexual ones.

“Not ‘when,’ but ‘why?’” he says, making note of how the marriage question is often phrased to him.

“Well, the same reason you do.”

Same-sex Partner Households

Stats from the 2000 Census

  • The U.S. has 594,000 same-sex unmarried-partner households, compared with 4.9 million households of unmarried opposite-sex couples
  • Nationally, 33% of female same-sex households and  22% of male same-sex households include biological children under 18
  • 13,000 Asian Pacific Islanders identify themselves as living with same-sex partners in California, making up more than one-third of the 38,200 APIs in same-sex households in the U.S.
  • California, the largest state, has the most same-sex households, with 92,000
  • San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are first, fourth and fifth among U.S. cities with the most same-sex households