Marriage: Some Good News, More Bad News
By MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Thursday, October 10 was both a good day and a bad day for the movement to grant marriage equality to same-sex couples in the U.S. The good news was that the Supreme Court of Connecticut, by the same narrow 4-3 margin as the high courts in Massachusetts and California, interpreted their state’s constitution to require that their state not only grant to same-sex couples “civil unions” with the same rights and responsibilities of married heterosexual couples, but that they must allow same-sex couples to marry on an identical basis to opposite-sex couples.
The arguments on both sides were pretty much the same as in California’s case. The majority said that even if the institutions were otherwise identical, calling the system for giving legal recognitions to same-sex couples “civil unions” and the one for opposite-sex couples “marriage” is discriminatory because “the very existence of the classification [‘civil union’] gives credence to the perception that separate treatment is warranted for the same illegitimate reasons that gave rise to the past discrimination in the first place. … [T]here is no doubt that civil unions enjoy a lesser status in our society than marriage.”
The Connecticut court majority also held that sexual orientation constitutes a “suspect class” deserving of “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of civil-rights protection U.S. law affords and one which the U.S. Supreme Court gives to only one classification, race. The dissenters, like the ones in California, argued that classifications based on sexual orientation don’t deserve strict scrutiny and that in the long run it is the people, both directly at the ballot box and indirectly through their elected representatives, who should be the ultimate arbiters of whether same-sex couples deserve access to the right of marriage.
The bad news is that within the space of three weeks, the battle at the polls in California over Proposition 8 — a radical Right-sponsored initiative to reverse the California Supreme Court’s ruling and declare that only marriage between one man and one woman shall be recognized in this state — has turned decisively against us. The SurveyUSA poll done for KPIX Channel 5, the CBS-affiliated TV station in San Francisco, puts the initiative ahead 47 to 42 percent among likely voters — a dramatic reversal of the five-point margin against it the same poll found only eleven days earlier. A similar poll from another firm, Lake Research, shows Proposition 8 ahead 47 to 43 percent.
What happened in the meantime was that the Yes on 8 forces got their TV ad campaign up and running — and, in common with most Right-wing rhetoric these days, it was based on fear. Fear that churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they continue to speak out against same-sex marriage. Fear that schools will teach their students that same-sex marriage is an acceptable social institution. (One item on the pro-8 Web site, www.protectmarriage.com, is headlined, “First-Graders Taken to San Francisco City Hall for Gay Wedding.”) What’s more, the Yes on 8 campaign now has $12 million in the bank and the No on 8 campaign has just $1 million — which, barring a major infusion of cash from big-pocketed donors to the No on 8 campaign, means that the Yes side’s message of fear and hatred will drown out the No side’s message of love and acceptance, and voters will vote their fears and pass the initiative overwhelmingly.
We know all too well where the Yes on 8 side’s money came from. Massive infusion of cash from churches and religious organizations, including the Mormon church (whose founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., may actually have performed same-sex weddings) and the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus, gave them a $25 million war chest of which so far they’ve only spent half. So has Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based radical-Right powerhouse that launched Proposition 8 in the first place. Prominent businesspeople, many of whom make much of their money from the Queer community, have also donated.
At the same time, according to a dispatch from Eric Resnick for the LOOP E-magazine, many wealthy Queer celebrities — including ones like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell who actually married their partners in California — haven’t given a dime to preserve the rights they exploited. “Elton John and Melissa Etheridge, two of the best-known and wealthiest LGBT people in popular music, have also not donated, nor have directors Gus Van Sant, Joel Schumacher and Bryan Singer, or producers Greg Berlanti of Brothers and Sisters or Marc Cherry of Desperate Housewives,” Resnick reported. While straight stars like Brad Pitt (whose own problems with heterosexual relationships have been reported — and probably exaggerated — by the tabloids) have given generously to No on 8, most of Hollywood’s Queer Glitterati are hors de combat on this one.
What’s even more ominous for the future of same-sex marriage in the U.S. is that the gain of support for Proposition 8 occurred almost entirely among young voters (ages 18 to 34). Before this poll, marriage equality advocates had always assumed that the youth were on our side; that even if today’s cohort of voters was against same-sex marriage, the bigots would slowly die off and eventually there would be a clear majority on our side as young people, raised in an atmosphere of live-and-let-live acceptance of Queer people, entered voting age and replaced them.
Well, as on so many issues the Left sat on its hands and hoped, and the Right put their noses to the grindstone and organized. An October 10 dispatch on the Christian Newswire by Trish Teves [http://www.protectmarriage.com/article/traditional-marriage-initiative-makes-gains-with-young-voters] boasts that the Yes on 8 forces have set up a special Web site to appeal to youth directly, iProtectMarriage.com, which “directs users to MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and BlueChowder, encouraging young people to register to vote, get informed about Prop. 8, and tell their friends to vote Yes on 8.” As a result, according to the SurveyUSA poll, voters 18 to 34 are now MORE likely than older voters to support Proposition 8 — 53 percent in favor to 39 percent opposed.
It’s likely that the Connecticut high court ruling will also be nullified at the polls — and, unlike in California, that may happen before it even has a chance to take effect. That’s because of a provision in the Connecticut constitution that requires voters to decide, at 20-year intervals, whether to hold a constitutional convention to revise it. The 20-year vote just happens to be taking place this year — and even before the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its ruling, marriage equality opponents had grabbed hold of the convention vote and were promoting it as a surrogate initiative against same-sex marriage and possibly against civil unions as well.
The pollsters in California warn that the totals on Proposition 8 are still volatile and the Yes side doesn’t have it in the bag any more than the No side did when they were ahead in the polls. Nonetheless, the trends are ominous. In only one U.S. state — Arizona — have voters ever defeated an initiative aimed at limiting marriage to one man and one woman, and the radical Right in Arizona has put the issue on the ballot again this year with the full support of their senior senator, Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, who’s filmed TV commercials promoting it. Every other state whose people have had the chance to vote on this issue has rejected marriage equality for same-sex couples, usually by overwhelming margins — like the 22 percent by which California voters affirmed that marriage should only be between one man and one woman in March 2000, the last time they had a chance to weigh in on this issue.
Marriage equality advocates like to argue that basic human rights should be beyond the judgment of the majority to bestow or take away. Idealistically, that’s correct; but as the late Senator Eugene McCarthy said in defending the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the law can never get too far ahead of the people or the law will not be respected. The trick, McCarthy added, was to push the law JUST far enough ahead of popular prejudices that it will be accepted and will advance civil rights. If California voters pass Proposition 8 and Connecticut voters endorse a constitutional convention to repeal their high court’s marriage equality decision, it will be proof positive that in lobbying for domestic partnerships and civil unions, Queer rights advocates were pushing the envelope far enough — and by demanding marriage, they pushed it too far and lost the respect and support of the people.
Today we face a political emergency in the Queer community. The defeat of Proposition 8 by all legal means available is our immediate priority. NOTHING — not even the Presidential election — is more important. Passage of Proposition 8 will kill the chances of same-sex marriage anywhere in the U.S. outside of a state or two in New England forever — or at least long enough that no one now living will see it. The future of Queer equality will be far better if Proposition 8 is defeated and John McCain is the next President than if it passes and Barack Obama is the next President. Accordingly, the Queer community nationwide in the U.S. should divert ALL its resources into a massive campaign to raise a war chest capable of matching that of the Proposition 8 supporters and defeating this initiative at the polls while there is still a chance to do so.
If, despite our best efforts, Proposition 8 passes, we should accept the will of the people of America’s largest (and one of its most liberal) states and abandon the demand for marriage equality. We should instead concentrate on an incremental strategy to expand our separate institutions, domestic partnerships and civil unions, to cover more and more people and give more and more of the rights of marriage. Proposition 8 is the deal-breaker, the vote that will determine whether or not marriage equality for same-sex couples EVER becomes a reality in the United States. Our opponents understand that and are acting accordingly. Are we?