I am delighted to share with you, my AJWS friends, that I got married at the end of last year.
For many of us, marriage sounds like a common milestone—but it was unthinkable for someone like me in most parts of the United States until 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize and grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And my marriage could not have happened in most areas of the world because same-sex marriage is not permitted in 165 countries. Indeed, simply being gay is criminalized in 73 countries.
To many of us, also, a marriage sounds like a cause for cheer. But I must admit my misgivings about the history and the current state of the institution. Too often, marriage has been used to enforce the patriarchy—the domination of women by men—as well as to assert the perceived superiority of heterosexual love and relationships. As someone who works for global human rights, I am all too aware that in many countries, marriage serves to keep power in the hands of men, restrict the freedom of women and girls and keep non-heterosexuals in their place.
I had the great fortune of making a choice to be married; I chose the man I have loved deeply for the past 18 years. As Alan Cohen and I wrote our wedding vows, we reflected on the legal and social implications of marriage in the 19 countries where AJWS works to end poverty and promote human rights. Far too frequently, marriage is not about love and partnership; it is about institutionalizing inequality with cruel, often devastating results for the lives of people.
When Alan and I arrived at the chuppah, or wedding canopy, we draped each other with a white shawl made of embroidered fabric from Lucknow, India, which I bought on my first visit to the country. For us, this shawl symbolized our freedom to choose marriage, in contrast to the millions of adolescent girls around the globe who are forced into early marriages. Over 650 million women alive today were married as children and 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 each year. India, for example, has outlawed child marriage for decades. But in many communities, teenage girls are married without their consent. Parents arrange the marriage of their daughters soon after their girls reach puberty, denying them a chance to make any choices about their futures. In effect, marriage becomes a crippling restraint—and often a place of sexual violence and exploitation—rather than an opportunity for deep human connection.
I’m just as concerned about the countries where marriage is denied to those who wish to wed. In Kenya, AJWS has worked with courageous LGBTQI+ groups to challenge the constitution, which upholds a colonial law that criminalizes gay sex. The Kenyan constitution has institutionalized discrimination by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This past year, activists had a setback when the Nairobi High Court refused to decriminalize sex between people of the same gender. The judge quoted that constitutional definition of marriage. And yet, I keep thinking back to something that happened when we visited Nairobi on a recent AJWS study tour. At Pema Kenya, an organization that supports LGBTQI+ communities, scores of Kenyans who had come to greet our delegation gasped with excitement, then loudly cheered and applauded when Michael Stubbs, one of our delegates, shared that he is married to Bill Resnick, a member of our board.
Marriage is still a cause for celebration, and so I want to close with some encouraging developments. In India and other countries, young women are demanding the right to go to college before marriage. And others are seeking careers before marriage. I’m reminded of Khushi Prajapati in Delhi. As a teen, she worked as a maid and expected to be married soon, whether she wanted to or not. Then she joined a program supported by AJWS that helps women in India get good-paying jobs as taxi drivers, a field traditionally dominated by men. In just three years, she was able to buy her family a house and save money to help her younger sister attend medical school. Perhaps most importantly, she was able to shift the long held societal values of her parents, and she earned their respect for her decision to determine when and if she wants to marry.
Around the world, we’re working to right these wrongs and ensure that every marriage is by choice and respects the integrity and dignity of those getting married regardless of who they are and how they identify. Stay tuned: I’m hopeful! This year in Kenya, our partners are going to an appeals court to challenge the lower court’s negative decision and in Thailand, brave activists are advocating in court and the legislature for an end to the country’s ban on same-sex marriages. Being aware of inequity does not diminish the love in my life or the joy of my marriage; it just makes me want to fight even more for others who are denied this right.
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in the developing world. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combatting HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.