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Loud opposition, quiet support: in the face of a noisy antigay crusade, a few Democrats bravely back same-sex marriage. Others, fearing political costs, keep their support behind closed doors.

At the second U.S. Senate hearing held last month on the proposed constitutional amendment to forever ban equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, openly gay Massachusetts representative Barney Frank asked the $64,000 question: "When I go home from today's work and I choose because of my nature to associate will another man, how is that a problem for you? How does that hurt you?"

No one on the Senate Judiciary Committee had an answer. Not conservative Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. Not conservative Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter. Not former Democratic presidential candidate and North Carolina senator John Edwards. The only committee member who has seemed to understand what Frank was talking about is Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy, who has, without fanfare, endorsed civil marriage for gay men and lesbians.

Frank's passionate support for full equality remains the anomaly. For all the bravado being spewed forth by opponents of President George W. Bush's Federal Marriage Amendment, most are too scared to publicly support same-sex marriage rights. While local-level politicians, such as San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and New Paltz, N.Y., mayor Jason West, have stuck their necks out for same-sex marriage and endured threats of jail or physical harm, there are still only a handful of vocal federal-level marriage supporter, including Frank; Kennedy; Rep. Tammy Baldwin, an out lesbian from Wisconsin; presidential longshot Dennis Kucinich; House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, whose district represents San Francisco only; Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York; and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. That's out of 273 Democrats in both houses of Congress. And not a single Republican.

"It confirms our worst suspicions: that politicians of both political stripes are better at taking polls than governing with principle," says Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the gay political group Log Cabin Republicans, which has feuded with Bush over the president's support for the antigay FMA.

The principles and values at stake in this debate go well beyond access to the altar. At its core, achieving marriage for gays and lesbians is not simply about increased financial benefits or hospital visitation rights. Marriage signals the final approach of full equality for gay men and lesbians--the last rung in a long climb that once stalled at workplace discrimination and civil unions. In the national debate over gay rights it has suddenly springboarded in importance past adoption and gays in the military, especially with the possibility of a constitutional amendment to institutionalize marriage discrimination. "When we allow them to go to the U.S. Constitution, it becomes an apartheid amendment," says David Mixner, a onetime adviser to Bill Clinton on gay issues. "Apartheid is when you put into the Constitution of a nation things that will separate one group of society from another, and this would be a separate system for gays and lesbians."

Given the heated emotions on both sides, no one should be shocked that high-profile national lawmakers who have fought against the marriage amendment have not also supported same-sex marriage publicly, such as presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and U.S. senators Dianne Feinstein of California (a Judiciary Committee member) and Hillary Clinton of New York. More surprising is that it took more than a month after San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for its high-profile congresswoman, Pelosi, finally to come out in support of equal access to matrimony. Her decision was notable, because as minority leader she is expected to campaign nationwide as part of the Democrats' ongoing battle to retake the House, and by supporting marriage equality she risks Republicans' painting her as a liberal poster child from San Francisco.

Lower-profile lawmakers' reluctance to follow Pelosi is easily traceable to poll numbers. The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey taken in February found that 57% of 30- to 44-year-old Americans, 67% of 45-to 64-year-olds, and 75% of those 65 and older would oppose a law in their states to allow same-sex marriage. Thus otherwise gay-friendly lawmakers have tried to find a safe, if awkward, position: bashing Bush's amendment while family opposing equal marriage rights for gays. In this case, they tell themselves, trumpeting equality might be political suicide.

Frank tells The Advocate that he knows many high-profile lawmakers who privately support same-sex marriage but don't feel they can say it publicly. He believes they will eventually do so as public opinion starts to change when gay men and lesbians begin to marry in Massachusetts on May 17.

Pelosi's going public earned her a personal thank-you on the House floor from Representative Baldwin, who notes that Democrats have gone out of their way to fight Bush's amendment. Her colleagues are still digesting the reality of gay marriage, she tells The Advocate. "Obviously, same-sex marriage is a relatively new issue on the federal front. Those of us who've been laboring in our home communities for [gay rights] don't think of it as a new issue. But as an issue that has emerged in Congress, it is brand-new. The public is talking about it and struggling with it, and I would say that members of Congress are doing the same."

Part of that struggle may include saying one thing iii private and another in public. California assembly member Mark Leno, who is sponsoring a his to legalize same-sex marriage in his home state, notes that politics can play a cruel game, forcing elected officials to vote against what they secretly believe. A stark reminder of this is President Bill Clinton's signing of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Clinton had been a strong ally of the gay community until that point.

The silent duplicity of some politicians in office is underlined by the vocal declarations of some who are out of office and have nothing to lose by their honesty. Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, now a visiting fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, recently told reporters, "We have a representative-style government. Represent your people and vote, and stand by what you believe in. How is my marriage under attack if two gays or lesbians down the street want to make a lifelong commitment to themselves?" In October 2001, Republican former president Gerald Ford publicly told syndicated columnist Deb Price that gay couples should have the same federal benefits that straight couples have, such as Social Security and tax benefits. "I think they ought to be treated equally," he said--a position diametrically opposed to both Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act and Bush's amendment.

John Kerry says he supports civil unions and letting states decide the matter. He voted against DOMA but has also come out strongly against marriage for gays and lesbians, saying he even favors an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution that would forbid it. The candidate takes cover in the poll-driven unity of other top Democratics: "[John Kerry] does not support gay marriage, as every other significant Democratic leader in the country does not," Steve Elmendorf, Kerry's deputy campaign manager, who is also gay, tells The Advocate. "He believes marriage is with a man and a woman, and that equality in how people are seeking to have their relationships recognized is attainable through civil unions." However, Elmendorf urges gay voters to look at Kerry's long record supporting gay issues, ranging from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to being one of only 14 senators to oppose DOMA in 1996.

What may also be preventing Kerry from going further into the fray of same-sex marriage is the furor it has opened up in the Democratic Party. In Atlanta on March 22, for example, dozens of black pastors rallied for marriage to be defined as between a man and a woman. They were also angry that same-sex marriage was being compared to their civil rights movements of the 1960s. "When the homosexual compares himself to the black community, he doesn't know what suffering is," said the Reverend Clarence James, an African-American studies professor at Temple University. On the other side, the National Black Justice Coalition is trying to build support in the black community for gay marriage. [See "The Black Divide," page 34.]

The battle is likely to be long, so it is important to remember how drastically the terms of the debate have changed in so short a time. Just a few months ago, when it seemed Howard Dean was on his way to capturing the Democratic nomination for president, gays and lesbians championed iris cause because he supported civil unions. Now civil unions are seen as offering second-class citizenship. "History has a way of jumping ahead of us," says Mixner, "and it takes things like the weddings in San Francisco or the Massachusetts court to say that 'separate but equal' is not working, and what was acceptable a few days ago won't work now."

One of the few high-profile politicians keeping up with history is Senator Kennedy, a longtime gay rights advocate. He told NBC's Meet the Press, "The Massachusetts decision has no requirement about sacramental marriage. I think that's the key. There's no requirement that the Catholic Church, Protestant church, synagogue, mosque have to have a sacramental marriage ... civil marriage, I support that." A Kennedy spokesman confirms that his boss supports civil marriage for gay people as long as churches aren't forced to marry same-sex couples.

Other Democratic leaders, who have hesitated to publicly support marriage equality, have nevertheless thrown themselves into the fight against the proposed constitutional amendment. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who represents South Dakota, has blasted the Bush administration for tinkering with the Constitution. "There are those who would like to politicize this issue, and they'll use whatever means available to them to maximize whatever value they find politically," he said. Gay rights groups also cite the courage of Wisconsin's Democratic senator Russ Feingold, the ranking Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In March 3 subcommittee hearing on marriage laws, he told the bill's supporters: "An amendment regarding same-sex marriage would write discrimination into the governing document of our nation. This amendment targets a specific group of Americans and permanently excludes them from certain rights and benefits."

Human Rights Campaign president Cheryl Jacques says Feingold has been an admirable defender of the gay community who "dissected their arguments very brilliantly." Feingold, who declined comment to The Advocate, told a Madison, Wis., newspaper that he will "lead the charge" in derailing the FMA. In doing so he has also become Exhibit A in the potential political costs of defending equality: In an article posted to the conservative Focus on the Family Web site, Family Research Institute of Wisconsin executive director Julaine Appling accuses Feingold of caving in to "a hard-core group of gay rights activists." The site includes a link for members to e-mail him and force him to change his mind.

It is unlikely that the Federal Marriage Amendment will get through both houses of Congress anytime soon, despite a language change by its sponsors (Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, both of Colorado), who claim state-level civil unions will be allowed if the amendment is passed. (Others contend that the new wording may still outlaw such arrangements.) Daschle has said supporters are not close to being able to pass the FMA, while Rep. David Dreier of California, the Republican chairman of the Rules Committee--who opposes the amendment--recently told reporters, "I have not seen any kind of great consensus around a single amendment." He added that the votes in Congress "are not there now."

So, might the fear of political backlash that's muzzling some supporters of same-sex marriage also be nagging at opponents? Certainly, Bush's amendment proposal has served its purpose, allowing him to solidify his conservative Christian base by playing the gay community as scapegoat while throwing his Democratic challengers for a loop. But he has also alienated many of his less conservative supporters--"country-club Republicans" who publicly support the president but do not wish to write discrimination into the Constitution. For this group, Bush may have gone too far.

Ultimately, public and lawmaker support for same-sex marriage may arrive with time--as the next generation comes of age. The Annenberg survey found that only 35% of 18- to 29-year-olds supported an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage, and slightly less than half opposed state laws that would allow same-sex couples to marry.

This is where the center of the country is heading" says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a nonpartisan group devoted to securing marriage equality nationwide. "With each passing year they move closer and closer to it. If you took at where we were in 1996 and now in 2004, it is clear where this is heading."

Quittner has written for the New York Post and Business Week.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Marriage
Author:Graham, Chad
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 27, 2004
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