Marriage of Two Minds

Gay nups may have become inevitable, but for now it's a world of pain

If you're gay and looking to marry, the news might seem all white lace and promises.

Last week, Massachusetts lawmakers bucked an attempt to halt gay marriages. On September 14 they trounced, by a vote of 157 to 39, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the same-sex nuptials made legal two years ago, and replaced them with civil unions. The final count marked a dramatic shift; 105 of these lawmakers had supported the same amendment last year.

Just eight days earlier, California had been the state breaking ground, when its legislature became the first such body in this country to authorize civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples. The victory was hard-fought: It took activists 20 months of wheedling and browbeating just to keep the bill alive. They won final approval by a narrow margin, 41 to 35. Yet momentum, once again, had been on their side, causing activists to hail a new chapter in the push for marriage equality for gays and lesbians nationwide.

As Evan Wolfson, the executive director of Freedom to Marry, in New York, puts it, "This vote means we've entered a new era. It doesn't mean we'll win overnight, but it means we've turned the tide."

Maybe so. Things have gotten better for gay people in some places across the country since 2004, when the marriage equality movement kicked into overdrive. This year, the Connecticut legislature enacted a civil-unions law to recognize gay couples, without a court order. The law goes into effect next month. And last year, New Jersey granted couples such limited domestic-partnership benefits as hospital visitation rights. Meanwhile, lawsuits challenging the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex partners are making their way through the courts in both states, setting the stage for full equality.

For the rest of the country, though, the reality is much grimmer. Activists have had to remain on the defensive, fending off one constitutional amendment after another—and measures that not only ban gay marriage, but also prohibit any legal recognition whatsoever. As many as 18 states have defined marriage in their constitutions as exclusively heterosexual, and the numbers continue to grow (see sidebar). In Texas, voters will cast their ballots on just such a ban come November. By 2006, Alabama, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin will have followed suit.

Some places keep piling on the pain, pushing more anti-gay ballot measures in the 13 states that approved constitutional bans on gay marriage last year. This time, the initiatives take aim at gay families, prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting. Already, activists have had to gear up for this second wave in Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, and Georgia. The list could easily grow.

Gay people can't even feel safe in progressive bastions. In California, less than 24 hours after the historic vote there, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to veto the bill. At the same time, opponents have begun gathering up to 600,000 signatures to amend the state's constitution to ban gay marriage by ballot referendum. They will also try to roll back the state's domestic-partnership benefits, which gay couples fought hard to win.

Over on the other coast, in Massachusetts, opponents are gathering signatures too, trying to put another question banning gay marriage on the ballot. If they succeed, it won't appear before voters until November 2008. By then, gay couples will have been getting hitched there for four years. Nevertheless, those who oppose their legal unions are busy organizing volunteers and raising money.

What's worse is that traditional allies of gay people—from candidates for office to ministers and advocacy groups—have turned their backs. Gay people, a tiny minority, are left to fight this unending fight almost alone. "Can you imagine the reaction from people of 'goodwill' if this kind of attack was going on against any other minority?" says Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Political Task Force. "People would have been up in arms, standing to defend the minority group. But because it happens to be gay people and marriage, it's a deafening silence."

To hear veteran activists tell it, the push for marriage equality, with its fits and starts, is going about as well as could be expected. It's all about taking two steps forward, one step back, as has happened in every civil rights struggle. Wolfson, of Freedom to Marry, describes the movement's evolution in his book Why Marriage Matters as a classic pattern, "a period of patchwork" in which some states move forward while others resist—or regress.

"There has never been a civil rights battle where all 50 states held hands and skipped happily towards equality," Wolfson says. Instead, we see 50 responses. Some states, like Massachusetts, will rush to legalizing gay marriage. Others, like Connecticut, will take incremental steps toward the final goal. Still others will pile on the anti-gay sentiment—Nebraska, for instance, not only passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage but wiped all forms of civil recognition for gay couples off the table.

Activists see a certain logic to the current lay of the land. Those places way ahead of the curve on the marriage issue—Massachusetts—have long led the country in the arena of gay rights generally. These states passed non-discrimination laws decades ago, or set up gay-straight alliances in high schools, or expanded hate-crimes statutes to include sexual orientation.

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