The Connecticut Rorschach Test

Human Rights

When gay rights activists and right-wing fundamentalists are both protesting the same thing, it's worth taking note. That is particularly true when the object of ire for both groups is a law that recognizes same-sex relationships. That seems to be the case with the recent bill that was signed into law April 20 by Connecticut's Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell that recognizes civil unions for that state's gay and lesbian couples.

No less a firebrand than Tony award winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, who is from Connecticut, called the politicians who supported the civil unions bill "traitors to the gay community. This is the most un-American movement I've ever heard of," he told Newsday. He was referring to the fact that the Connecticut legislature chose to ratify a law recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples, but stopped short of trying to pass a marriage bill for gays and lesbians.

The Connecticut law, which goes into effect October 1 of this year, is written to extend all the rights and obligations of a heterosexual Connecticut marriage to the state's same-sex couples. Activists estimate the number of rights and privileges extended to homosexual couples under the new law to be roughly 500. However, same-sex couples won't be able to get marriage licenses. Furthermore, the Connecticut House added an amendment to the civil unions bill that rewrote the definition of marriage as solely between one man and one woman.

"In Connecticut, they just passed a law saying I am less of a human being, I'm less of a citizen," he fumed. "How dare they." Indeed: How dare they, agrees Brian Brown. Sort of. Brown is the executive director of the conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, which opposes any kind of recognition for same-sex couples. "From now until 2006, our mission will be to let every person know in the state of Connecticut which lawmakers voted to redefine marriage, and which lawmakers voted to protect marriage," he said. Marriage? Yes, as far as Brown and his followers are concerned, the Connecticut legislature just passed a form of marriage for gay and lesbian people-regardless of what they officially call it.

Listening to the debate over Connecticut's civil union law between unhappy gay rights activists who wanted marriage, and conservative anti-gay forces who consider the law just as bad as granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is like looking at a Rorschach inkblot test: People can look at the same thing, and see totally different things. Funny thing is, even though the two men are on polar opposites of this issue, in many respects both men are right. There's no doubt that, as Fierstein feels, a civil union is not equal to a marriage. It just isn't. Perhaps all the legal rights and responsibilities under Connecticut law are the same. But the two are still not equal. The reason for that, of course, is that marriage is about more than just legal consequences. While the legal rights and protections are incredibly important, the battle for same-sex marriage rights is about a lot more than legalese. It's about recognizing the personal, emotional and social significance of the relationship between tow people who happen to be of the same sex. No substitute is an equal. Harvey Fierstein is right to be outraged. But Brian Brown and like-minded conservatives are getting it right if they are outraged, too. In fact, Brown and his allies understand the point exactly: The fight for gay marriage is about so much more than whatever name you put on the piece of paper that acknowledges such a relationship. That's why the civil unions law in Connecticut has them so hyper - they recognize it as the equivalent of marriage in all but name.

In places like Connecticut, the religious right sees there has been a huge change - not just in the law, but in something less tangible but far more powerful: people's attitudes towards gays and marriage. Connecticut isn't the first state to bestow such legal rights and recognitions on same-sex couples. Vermont passed the country's first civil unions law back in 2000, and just last year, Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses. But there's a critical difference in Connecticut: It is the first state that has adopted a law recognizing the legal rights of same-sex couples without the insistence of the courts. In both Vermont and Massachusetts, legal cases lead courts to require that the legislatures provide gay and lesbian couples with some sort of law that gave them recognition and protection. In Connecticut, there was no mandate by the courts. While there is a marriage lawsuit pending in Connecticut, it has not yet been settled. The legislature certainly wasn't forced to act yet. Instead, the movement in Connecticut was less about legal issues than it was about a shift in the way the general public there views same-sex relationships, and what to do about recognizing them. It appears that in Connecticut, citizens see same-sex relationships as deserving legal recognition and acknowledgement, but they don't yet see those relationships as equal to marriage. In the future, though, they likely will: Polls there show that people under 40 are very comfortable with gay and lesbian couples - even giving them marriage licenses. Both Fierstein and Brown see these realities quite clearly. It's no wonder they are both so upset.

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