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The case for same-sex marriage
The public is increasingly receptive; itís politicians who resist. As goes Canada, so goes the world?
BY SUSAN RYAN-VOLLMAR

SOME PEOPLE will never be persuaded that allowing gay and lesbian people to marry is the right thing to do. They will bury their heads in the book of Leviticus, selectively citing the passage "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination" while ignoring passages from the same text that deal with fashion ("neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee"). During discussions about marital rights for gay people, they will sneer, "Itís Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" oblivious to the sheer tiredness of the line, much less its utter meaninglessness.

But more and more, these people are the minority in this country. Sure, thereís still fierce, heels-dug-in resistance to ending marital inequality. In May, the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposal to amend the Constitution to prevent gay and lesbian couples from marrying, was introduced by five US representatives. In Massachusetts ó where the state Supreme Judicial Court will rule this summer on Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health, which seeks to end the Commonwealthís practice of issuing marriage licenses only to heterosexual couples ó State Representative Phil Travis has proposed a measure that would amend the state constitution to define marriage as something that can take place only between a man and a woman. Also in Massachusetts, the four bishops of the Catholic Church ordered that a statement opposing same-sex marriage be read from the altar during Mass over the June 1 weekend (see "Altared States," This Just In, June 7). And in New Jersey, five state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would prohibit gay and lesbian couples from marrying. Earlier this year, the New Jersey attorney general filed a motion to dismiss Lewis et al. v. Harris et al., a lawsuit filed last June by seven same-sex couples seeking the right to marry, by arguing that this is a matter for lawmakers to decide, and not the courts. But as entrenched as this opposition is, as of this writing itís becoming more and more clear that these efforts amount to nothing more than pockets of resistance in a culture primed for change.

Indeed, conservative cultural commentators like National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg have conceded defeat in this battle of the culture wars. In a June 20 column titled TIME TO FACE FACTS: GAYS GAIN VICTORY, Goldberg writes, "The gays have won. The problem is no one will admit it." What have the "gays" won in Goldbergís eyes? The right to be funny ó and flirtatious ó on television. The right to parent. And, in Canada at least, the right to marry. Granting full marital rights to same-sex couples is a "global trend," Goldberg writes, and itís heading our way.

Society is ready for the radical transformation of marriage that would result from opening up the institution to gay couples ó and it would be a radical transformation, despite what most proponents of full marital equality say. Advocates for marriage for same-sex couples all too often want to sneak through the back door, offering arguments such as the fact that marriage laws do not specifically refer to men and women means that gay couples should be able wed. Itís one of the arguments raised by the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case, for instance. But this is nonsense. The reason laws do not mention men and women is that they do not have to: from Colonial times onward, legal marriage in this country has always meant the formal union of one man and one woman. Rather than shying away from this reality, proponents of marriage rights for gay couples should insist on using the front door ó taking on the homophobes on their own turf and demanding that the definition of marriage be changed to reflect evolving cultural and social mores. And by most measures, a majority of straight society is ready.

Just look at Hudson County, New Jersey, a working-class Catholic enclave that encompasses Jersey City and Hoboken. In May, a poll of residents showed that 55.6 percent are in favor of legalizing marriages of same-sex couples. Among Hudson County Catholics in particular, the number is even higher: 60.4 percent. "[The pollsters] were surprised by the results and so were we," says Jersey Journal reporter Peter Weiss, whose story about the opinion poll was headlined SHOCKING RESULTS IN GAY MARRIAGE POLL. "Itís a changing community, youíre getting a lot of gentrification, spillover from New York. But thereís a strong blue-collar, ethnic-conservative, Catholic Church presence. You wouldnít have thought that the attitudes would have been as accepting as they were."

The lead plaintiffs in the New Jersey marriage lawsuit live in Union City, Hudson County, but Weiss doubts that publicity about the case influenced the poll ó even though the question about whether gay couples should be allowed to marry mentioned the couple. "I wonder how many of the people who responded were even aware of the specifics of the case," he says.

Thereís no question that the country is taking a more libertarian tack on recognizing gay relationships. Gallup has polled public attitudes on granting civil-union status to gay couples since 1996. When the question was first posed in April of that year ó asking respondents if they would vote "[f]or or against a law that would allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples" ó only 28 percent supported such a measure. By May of this year, support had grown to 49 percent. (Opposition, meanwhile, has dropped from 67 percent to 49 percent. Two percent of respondents either didnít have an opinion or refused to give it.) All of which means that, at this point, the country appears to be evenly divided on the question of whether to legally recognize gay relationships. Itís true that when the public is asked about marriage rights for gay couples instead of civil unions, support plummets. But itís telling that polls of young people show significant backing of full marital rights for gay couples. The University of Californiaís annual survey of incoming freshman last fall found that 57.9 percent support legal recognition of marriage for same-sex couples.

A more accurate measure of mainstream-American opinion on this issue can be found among our leading politicians. Three of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates support the federal enactment of civil unions for gay couples, according to a report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force titled "The 2004 Democratic Presidential Candidates on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues": former Vermont governor Howard Dean ó who signed Vermontís civil-unions law ó and US Senator John Kerry and US Representative Richard Gephardt. Another three support full equality in marriage rights for gay couples ó former US senator Carol Moseley Braun, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. (These candidates tend toward the fringe of the Democratic Party, but their stances could force more-mainstream candidates like US Senators John Edwards and Joe Lieberman, who support the rights of individual states to create civil-union legislation, to move their positions, since gay support is critical in Democratic primaries.) Of the major candidates, only US Senator Bob Graham has refused to take a position on the issue. Of course, President George W. Bush opposes any recognition of gay relationships.

Itís clear that when it comes to marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, the question is no longer whether such rights will be granted, but when. Still, the concept is a radical one that challenges the general public.

 

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Issue Date: June 27 - July 3, 2003
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