Love is a Battlefield: The Same-Sex Marriage War

The ground is starting to shift on the issue of same-sex marriage, and it comes as no shock that the latest temblors are being felt in California.A bill opposing same-sex marriage, Proposition 22, is set to appear on the March 2000 ballot. Known as the Knight initiative after its sponsor, Republican State Senator William "Pete" Knight, the bill does its deed in just 14 words. "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California," it says, which is redundant since the state family law already defines marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms. While same-sex marriage is currently illegal in all 50 states, the Knight initiative is the latest in a series of preemptive strikes that would make such unions null and void in California, should they be legalized elsewhere -- which Clinton made a possibility when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. The act gives states the right to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex marriages. So far 31 states have passed laws outlawing them. Leaders in the gay and lesbian community say that Proposition 22 and other such laws could lead to severe setbacks in the fight for equality for gays and lesbians -- not just on the issue of marriage, but on many fronts, including anti-discrimination laws, domestic partner benefits and adoptions by same-sex couples. "If Proposition 22 wins the right wing will use that to argue for further discrimination nationally," says Evan Wolfson, director of the Marriage Project at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "They will argue that politicians don't have to worry about the gay community because it doesn't have political allies or the ability to organize. And they will use the legal measure as a free-floating license to discriminate in a variety of contexts beyond marriage itself."While the Knight initiative is drawing support from conservatives, a separate offensive battle is simultaneously underway to legalize gay and lesbian marriage in California and to overrule the state's existing marital law. Called Californians for Same-Sex Marriage, the initiative is being proposed by two brothers, Tom and John Henning. The San Francisco high school physics teacher and Los Angeles attorney are in the process of collecting 1 million signatures by April 20, 2000, to qualify the measure for the November 2000 ballot, according to the San Francisco Examiner. While it is unlikely the measure will qualify because of time and money constraints, the brothers hope their efforts will spark thought and promote conversation on the subject.While same-sex marriage has been on the agenda in a number of states, it seems that the courtroom, rather than the ballot box, may become the place where the issue is decided.The first real glimmer of hope for gay men and lesbians who want to marry legally came in 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry was a form of gender discrimination. The court ordered the state to show a reason for limiting civil marriage to heterosexual couples, which the state failed to do in a 1996 trial. The Hawaiian government appealed that decision and hope is now fading that the island state will break the logjam and be the first to legalize same-sex marriage. In 1998 right wing groups, including the Mormon and Catholic churches, which are fueling anti-gay marriage campaigns nationally, successfully pushed an amendment to the Hawaii constitution that says the state will have "the power to reserve marriage to a man and a woman." The legislature has not yet acted on the amendment to put it into effect. But regardless of what lawmakers ultimately decide, the Hawaii case has had a monumental effect, bringing the issue into the public consciousness. "With the Hawaii Supreme Court decision the earth moved," says Wolfson, who served as co-counsel in the case. "Suddenly people began talking about something they'd never been asked to think about before. As they began talking about it, they realized there is no good reason for the discrimination." Many are now hoping a case pending in the Vermont Supreme Court will bring about the landmark decision. The state's high court, known for being open-minded, is currently considering a case in which three same-sex couples are petitioning to marry. If the court rules in favor of the couples, it would be an historic judgment with implications for other states that have not yet outlawed same-sex marriage. **National efforts to thwart same-sex marriage have been fueled and funded largely by the Mormon and Catholic churches who oppose the issue on moral grounds. In California those groups have been aided by right-wing extremist millionaires such as Howard Ahmanson, who supports "total integration of biblical law into our lives," and Ed Atsinger, owner of the nation's largest Christian radio broadcasting network. Together they have provided more than two-thirds of the funding for Proposition 22. "A man and a woman get married -- that's the way it was designed. To do anything else is not according to natural law," said Pete Knight, the initiative's sponsor, was quoted as saying in a November 24 Los Angeles Times article. Opponents of the initiative are equally vociferous about the definition of natural law. For them same-sex marriage is an equal rights issue."Why should anyone tell me what emotional job I must take on?" says E.J. Graff, a Boston-based journalist and author of "What is Marriage For?" (Beacon Press, 1999). "In the same way my work life is up to me, my marital life is up to me."Tracey Conaty, spokeswoman for No On Knight, the group leading the fight attack against the initiative, has even further-reaching concerns. "We know Knight-like laws have been used in other states to go after local domestic partner ordinances and custody rights, and we know the right wing has a larger agenda in California," she says. "ThereÕs no doubt that they will try to undo every gain made toward gay and lesbian equality in California in the past 20 years if this passes."Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley are backing the No on Knight campaign, while Republican frontrunner George W. Bush has come out absolutely opposed to same-sex marriage (as well as gay adoption and hate-crime legislation). Bush recently refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest gay Republican organization, to discuss issues including same-sex marriage, explaining that such a meeting would be divisive. One of the most interesting wrinkles in the controversy surrounding the Knight initiative is the personal history of its backer. Knight, whose own brother was gay and died of AIDS, and whose son David is homosexual, has a reputation for backing anti-gay legislation. He supported a measure against gay adoptions and voted against funding of AIDS and HIV prevention and treatment.Knight's relationship with his son has been strained since the younger Knight revealed his sexual orientation a few years ago. In an October 14 Los Angeles Times op-ed, David Knight publicly decried his father's position on the marriage issue, calling it "a blind, uncaring, uniformed, knee-jerk, reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing, but which serves his political career."Many have accused the elder Knight of waging a personal crusade against his son though Proposition 22 -- a charge he fervently denies. Instead he calls his views on same-sex marriage a matter of common sense and morality."It's what the homosexual community is asking for -- and the manner in which they're going about it -- that's bad," Knight said. "They want to be visible; they want to be accepted as normal people living a lifestyle that should be accepted as normal. That's the problem. If they weren't pushing so hard to be out and accepted, I don't think anybody would care." Knight's position begs the question why it makes sense for heterosexual couples to marry -- for economic, social and legal reasons Ð but does not make sense for homosexual couples. ThatÕs what those on the side of legalizing same-sex marriage continue to ask. And theyÕre steeling themselves for a long battle to convince others of their point of view."Once somebody goes first somewhere [and legalizes same-sex marriage] it will push us into the next chapter of this civil rights movements," says Wolfson. "The most significant thing that will happen is that lesbians and gay men will be allowed to marry, and the result will be that fair-minded non-gay people will see that the sky doesn't fall and theyÕll learn to live with it."Which, Wolfson says, is exactly what the right wing is afraid of. "They know the more people use the word marriage in the same sentence as gay or lesbian, the more it transforms people's understanding of who gay people are. TheyÕre afraid it has implications for equality between men and women, the elimination of sex discrimination, the elimination not only of heterosexism but sexism, and the right wing doesn't want that." Although the fight for same-sex marriage is far from won, proponents are optimistic, considering how far they've come since the days when homosexuality, let alone homosexual marriage, was taboo."In the Ô80s I couldn't have imagined this would be up for public discussion," says Graff. But while she is enthusiastic about the progress made toward legalizing same-sex marriages, Graff cautions that "it's not going to happen if good people stay silent."Which is why she, Wolfson, the Hennings and others are working hard to reach out to gay and non-gay alike -- to spread the word, raise awareness, and make people understand that the law must recognize and protect the vows taken between two women or two men, just as it does those between a man and a woman.More information about same-sex marriage legislation can be found at the following Web sites:Lambda Legal Defense Fund: http://www.lambdalegal.orgNo On Knight: http://www.noonknight.orgProposition 22: http://www.doma.orgCalifornians for Same-Sex Marriage: http://www.samesexmarraige.org

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