Love is a Battlefield (Updated): The Same-Sex Marriage War

In a landmark decision that has national implications on the same-sex marriage battlefield, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state must offer gay couples the "benefits and protections that flow from marriage." The case involved three same-sex couples who, after being denied marriage licenses, sued on grounds that they were being denied a long list of benefits made available to heterosexual couples -- everything from health insurance coverage to filing joint tax returns to making medical decisions for a spouse.While Vermont's high court didn't go so far as to legalize same-sex marriage -- leaving that decision up to the state Legislature to choose whether to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to establish a "parallel" domestic partnership system -- it did conclude that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights afforded heterosexual couples. Gay rights advocates were pleased with the ruling."As a lesbian activist, attorney, partner in a committed relationship and parent...I am elated that the Vermont Supreme Court has resoundingly concluded that discrimination against my family and the hundreds of thousands like us is wrong and unfair," said Kate Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.Even if the Legislature decides to go with the domestic partnership option, as Vermont Governor Howard Dean has predicted, supporters of same-sex marriage still see that as a giant step in the right direction, as the state will have to create the most wide-reaching system of benefits in the nation. "This is a glorious day," said Evan Wolfson, director of the Marriage Project at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "Vermont's highest court has ordered an end to unequal treatment of lesbian and gay families."The Vermont decision reenergized the issue of same-sex marriage, which had lost some steam just 11 days prior after a Hawaii Supreme Court decision. While the Hawaii court ruled in 1993 that a restriction on marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional, this month it ruled that a state constitutional amendment that restricts civil marriage to heterosexual couples and was approved by voters last year now mooted the case. Nonetheless, the case had a monumental effect in bringing the issue into the public consciousness."With the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision the earth moved," said Wolfson, who served as co-counsel in the case. While the Vermont ruling will have no immediate repercussions outside the state, there is hope that it will help bring about greater benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples nationwide. Aftershocks from the ruling are expected to be felt next in California, where a bill opposing same-sex marriage, Proposition 22, is set to appear on the March 2000 ballot. Dubbed the Knight initiative after its sponsor, Republican State Senator William "Pete" Knight, Proposition 22 is the latest preemptive strike against same-sex marriage -- if passed the state will refuse to recognize such unions should they be legalized in Vermont or elsewhere. More than 30 states have already passed similar laws denying such recognition -- something Clinton gave states the authority to do when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Since California makes up about an eighth of the nation's population, what happens in the state will likely have a great deal of impact on the rest of the country. The Knight initiative 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.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," said Evan Wolfson. "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."Mike Marshall, campaign manager for the No On Knight Campaign, the group leading the fight attack against Proposition 22, said the Vermont decision "makes more clear and profound than ever the need to defeat the Knight initiative. The Vermont Supreme Court recognizes that discrimination against same-sex couples is unconstitutional. The message from the Vermont Court is unmistakable: It's time to end discrimination, not enact it."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," Knight was quoted as saying in a November 24 Los Angeles Times article.For opponents of Proposition 22, the same-sex marriage debate is an equal rights issue."Why should anyone tell me what emotional job I must take on?" said 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 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 said. "There's 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 front-runner George W. Bush has come out absolutely opposed to same-sex marriage (as well as gay adoption and hate-crime legislation). He 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, uninformed, 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 does it make sense for heterosexual couples to marry -- for economic, social and legal reasons -- but not for homosexual couples? That's what those on the side of legalizing same-sex marriage continue to ask. And they're 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," said 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 they'll learn to live with it."Which, Wolfson said, 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. They're 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 '80s I couldn't have imagined this would be up for public discussion," said 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 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 taken between a man and a woman. And the Vermont ruling brings the day that might become a reality a little closer. More information about same-sex marriage legislation and the recent Vermont Supreme Court decision can be found at the following Web sites:Lambda Legal Defense Fund: No On Knight: Proposition 22:

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