Friday, March 06, 2009

Over 500 Turn Out for Marriage Equality Demonstration

Mayor Sanders Addresses Group on Eve of Supreme Court Hearing


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“We want the legal right to marry whom we love,” said former San Diego City Council candidate Stephen Whitburn on the steps of the San Diego County Hall of Justice downtown on March 4 to open a rally in defense of same-sex marriage and against the marriage ban California voters passed exactly four months earlier. The rally, which Whitburn MC’d while the man who defeated him in his City Council race, Todd Gloria, was stuck in Council committee meetings, was part of a statewide series called “March Forth on March Fourth,” timed to occur on the eve of the California Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the case, which took place March 5 in San Francisco.

The crowd was sparse at first, but as the event wound on over 500 people crowded onto the sidewalk in front of the Hall of Justice to hear a wide range of speakers. First up was San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who appeared with his daughter Lisa and her partner Megan. Sanders stunned the city last year when he abruptly reversed his opposition to same-sex marriage on the eve of the original Supreme Court case, saying that he couldn’t tell his Lesbian daughter that her relationship was less important than his own. This time, Sanders, a Republican, spoke about the effect of Proposition 8, which stripped California same-sex couples of the right to marry just six months after the state Supreme Court had declared it a fundamental right.

“When one person’s rights can be taken away, it can happen to anybody,” Sanders said. “Proposition 8 puts all minority groups at risk, not just LGBT’s [Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender people]. I don’t support separate but equal institutions.” Noting that a similar initiative, Proposition 22, passed by 18 percentage points in March 2000 while Proposition 8 won by only four points, Sanders said, “I think we saw a tremendous change in people’s thinking — and it will continue to change.”

Sanders was followed by former San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins, who brought along her own wife, Jennifer LeSar. “Last May we cried tears of joy when the California Supreme Court decided that we had the same rights as others,” Atkins said. “Then in November we cried a different sort of tears when the voters, by a slim majority and based on a deceptive campaign, took our rights away. Proposition 8 stands for the idea that if enough people agreed, we could establish an official state religion, take away women’s right to vote or even re-establish slavery.”

Waving her and LeSar’s marriage license, Atkins added, “This piece of paper really makes a difference. I wondered if I would feel the same way the day after our wedding, and Jennifer and I woke up the next morning and asked each other if we still felt different. I hadn’t thought it would matter, but I woke up on September 7 convinced it did make a difference. We believe this piece of paper matters and it should still matter. Our leaders are asking the Supreme Court to stand up for equality and overturn Proposition 8. I hope they will, not just for me and Jennifer but for Megan and Lisa.”

The next speaker was San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye, married to a man and a staunch defender of Queer equality. “Isn’t it a shame that we are still having this conversation?” she said. “Equal rights shouldn’t be so controversial. We just heard from my former colleague, Toni Atkins, on how it felt when the court said that you should have the same rights as other married couples. I want to tell you how grateful I am to be part of this event. I stand with you proud and united behind the idea that you deserve the same rights as I have.”

Rebecca Rauber of the San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) boasted of her organization’s role — along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund — in bringing the lawsuit challenging Proposition 8 before the California Supreme Court. “For the first time,” she said, “the initiative process has been used to take rights away and mandate discrimination against a minority. If Proposition 8 is upheld, the courts will no longer have a role in protecting the civil rights of minorities and women. If the court strikes down Proposition 8, it will be protecting the legal rights of all minorities.”

Scott Ehrlich, professor at the California Western School of Law, began his speech by saying, “I’m up here today because of my partner Frank. We’ve been together 21 years and we can’t be married.” He boasted that another Queer organization had just filed suit in federal courts to invalidate portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which bars the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex marriages made in the U.S. or any foreign country that allows them. He praised California Chief Justice Ronald George for his opinion last May striking down the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage — the decision Proposition 8 was designed to reverse — for acknowledging the issue’s effect not only on same-sex partners themselves but also on the children many of them are raising. He also questioned the motives of Proposition 8’s backers.

“The supporters of Proposition 8 argue tradition and use Biblical references to support the majority’s positions,” Ehrlich said. “Under these traditions, married women couldn’t own property in California until 1880 and women couldn’t vote until 1920. Black and white children could be legally segregated in schools until 1954. Black and white people couldn’t get married in California until 1949, and throughout the U.S. until 1967. Now it’s our turn for the courts and the legislatures to wash away those facetious arguments that we’re not entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples. I’m really looking forward to the right to marry my partner in the future.”

Betty Anderson, who with her husband Pete performed such songs as the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and John Mellencamp’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” wore a button reading “Straight Against 8” and said, “It’s not a sexual orientation issue, it’s a human rights and human dignity issue. We had a Gay rights rally in Coronado [where the Andersons live] with 40 people. My picture was on the front of the Coronado Eagle holding a sign saying, ‘My marriage is not threatened by Gay rights.’”

“I was living in South Lake Tahoe and was on my way to San Diego to visit my friend Tiffany when the California Supreme Court first announced its decision last May,” said Sara Beth Brooks, who emerged as a leader in the equality movement in San Diego in the wake of Proposition 8. Her group, the San Diego Equality Campaign, organized a march and rally in mid-November that drew 10,000 people, the largest turnout statewide for a post-Proposition 8 marriage equality event. “I really look forward to going to San Francisco [for the actual court hearing] tomorrow, representing San Diego. I look forward to the tears of joy when Proposition 8 is declared invalid by the California Supreme Court.”

Jess Durfee, openly Gay chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party and former president of the San Diego Democratic Club, thanked Republican supporters of marriage equality like Mayor Sanders and Chief Justice George, but said that overall the stances of the two major political parties couldn’t be more different on the issue. “The California Republican Party says, ‘It’s important to define marriage as one man and one woman. Educational institutions should not be exploited to teach homosexuality as an ‘acceptable alternate lifestyle.’ We oppose domestic partnerships, child custody and benefits for homosexual couples,’” Durfee said, quoting the California Republican Party’s platform.

“The Democratic Party supports equality for LGBT people in all aspects of their lives,” Durfee continued. “We support the LGBT community in the quest for equal marriage. We also see a stark contrast in the way the parties vote in the legislature. Of the 15 Republicans in the California State Senate, 14 earned zero on the Equality California scorecard.” [Equality California is the state’s main lobbying group for Queer rights and was a major player in the campaign against Proposition 8.] Out of the 25 Democrats, 20 earned 100 percent. Of the 32 Assembly Republicans, 30 earned zero. Of the 48 Democrats, 47 got 100 percent. I am proud of what my party stands for, that my party leads on marriage equality.”

Robert Klaus and Miguel Rodriguez, a Gay couple who met and got together six years ago in their native Iowa before moving to San Diego, spoke next. Robert mentioned that he has a Lesbian sister and recounted the history of their relationship, including the legally non-binding commitment ceremony he and Rodriguez went through at the United Church of Christ before they left Iowa. “I didn’t realize until the commitment ceremony how much it hurt not to have the legal rights,” Klaus said. “On September 22, 2008, a date we will never forget, I was legally married after five and one-half years of waiting. That joy was short-lived. The voters tried to tell our community that we are less than equal. I implore the court to reverse that and not divorce us against our will.”

“San Diego, it’s a pleasure to be with you because you’re my family,” Rodriguez said. “Robert and I have been together six years and we have fights, but we love each other and are trying to make it work together. Marriage is a union of two people who love each other. The people who voted for 8 are saying no to Gay rights and no to their brothers and sisters. As a Gay Latino, I know what it is to be discriminated against,” he added, closing his speech with a short message in Spanish.

Lisa Kove, volunteer coordinator for the San Diego Democratic Club and a major player in the marriage equality movement in San Diego, brought along her 18-year-old son Scott and described her legal battle against her former partner in Pennsylvania to establish a Lesbian partner’s right to child support. “Her attorney said to the judge, ‘There’s no such thing as Lesbian child support. This is a slam-dunk. You must dismiss,’” Kove recalled. “The judge said we had to make this fair, and there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution to cover this, so he went back to the Magna Carta and found a phrase, ‘equitable estoppel,’ under which he ordered child support. We went to the court of appeal in Pennsylvania and all three judges on the appeals panel agreed with my side. Since then, we have had Lesbian child support in the United States.”

The emotional high point came when Tom and Richard Wolheim, a 31-year Gay couple who appeared in matching white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Just Married,” introduced a group of East County marriage equality activists called the “Mama Bears.” They weren’t all women and they weren’t all Queer, but they galvanized the audience as they told how their representatives in the California state legislature refused to meet with them on this issue — though, Richard Wolheim boasted, eventually they got progressive Democratic Assemblymember Lori SaldaƱa to move from “probable yes” on the legislative resolution endorsing the legal challenge against Proposition 8 to active support and co-sponsorship.

“How dare anyone use scare tactics and strip away the basic freedoms of Californians,” one of the “Mama Bears” said as the rally reached the high point of its attendance. Other speakers, a choral performance and a candlelight vigil along Broadway followed.