Marriage of Two Minds

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

States that have basic protections for gay people are now wrestling with the marriage issue, activists say. Take New York. On the one hand, it seems to be moving toward equality. It's one of just six states without a law on the books defining marriage as between a man and a woman, it has a pending marriage lawsuit, and some officials have even performed gay nuptials, albeit illegally. On the other, the New York legislature has enacted rights for gay families only in tiny increments.

Resistance has been strongest where gay people have no protections at all—no anti-discrimination laws, no family registries, no advocacy groups. Activists were still trying to achieve these steps in all 50 states when the marriage issue went national, in 2004, with the first wave of amendments. They've had to shift their focus to staving off the bans. But, as Toni Broaddus of the Equality Federation explains, "It's difficult to fight an anti-gay-marriage measure in a state where gays who speak out can lose their jobs."

That sums up the case in Kentucky, where last fall, voters passed an anti-gay-marriage amendment by a landslide 75 to 25 percent. Andrea Hildebran, who heads the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a gay rights group, describes a valiant campaign waged by tens of thousands of activists and allies there. They crisscrossed the state, knocking on doors, trying to sway the hearts and minds. And Hildebran says they achieved "a measurable difference" in how voters cast their ballots.

When they lost, however, it didn't come as a big surprise. Since 1998, Kentucky has had a law on the books defining marriage as exclusively heterosexual. And lawmakers have pushed numerous anti-gay measures for more than a decade. They've tried to recriminalize sodomy and prohibit local gay rights ordinances. They've even tried to justify murdering a homosexual with the "gay panic defense." Word has it the right will be filing yet another amendment. This time, activists expect it to ban gay adoption.

"There is nothing mysterious about Kentucky," says Hildebran. "It's just that we're further behind."

Even states known for their liberal ways have experienced setbacks. In March 2004, for instance, Oregon was brimming with hope. One county began issuing marriage licenses, and more than 3,000 same-sex couples tied the knot. Says Roey Thorpe, of Basic Rights Oregon, who married her partner, "I cried almost continuously for a couple of weeks because I understood what it felt like to be equal." One year later, she and thousands more had their unions nullified by the state's Supreme Court.

Yet that wasn't the last of the crushing defeats. Last fall, voters passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, 57 to 43 percent. Activists returned to battle, pushing for a civil-unions bill instead. In July, it passed in the senate 19 to 10 and, Thorpe says, could have passed in the House too. But their efforts were thwarted last month, when the House speaker refused to bring it to the floor for a vote. "It was a terrible blow," Thorpe confides. "It left people wondering, 'Is there anything we can do?' "

Changing people's minds is not an impossible task—it just takes time. Case in point: California activists suffered a major blow when voters passed a referendum restricting marriage to heterosexuals in 2000. But they soon turned the negative around. The next year, they began pushing for limited domestic-partnership benefits, securing them in 2002. Then the legislature expanded those rights to mirror civil unions. And then came today's marriage bill. All of that happened within five years.

But activists don't have five years when trying to beat back a ballot referendum. Instead, they have three to six months. Glen Maxey, of No Nonsense in November, in Texas, is just beginning to grapple with the constraints of such a short time frame. As the group's name shows, they're not necessarily playing up the fight for full equality.

"This is a soccer mom campaign," he explains. Maxey hopes to tap into voters' general frustration with the legislature, which is sponsoring the measure.

"This campaign may be a long shot," he says, "but I know that we are uniquely situated to defeat this amendment, better than any state so far."

That, of course, is just what the movement needs, says the Task Force's Foreman. He considers the push to be at a "very critical moment" these days. By next year, anti-equality amendments, as opposed to laws, could reach half of all states in the nation. Once a state turns over, it becomes very hard for activists to move forward. Only four suits have been filed challenging an amendment—in Oregon, Ohio, Georgia, and Nebraska. In May, a trial judge struck down the Nebraska amendment, saying it denies gay couples fundamental rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Still, the state has since appealed to the federal appellate courts.

"This is a long-term grinding battle, but we have to create some wins," Foreman says. "It's us against them."

No one agrees more than Geoff Kors, who heads Equality California. He sees the potential 2006 vote as pivotal not just for California, but for the movement overall. "We know we have to stand the line by beating opponents in the ballot effort," he says. "If we do, we can turn back the tide for the nation. But if we don't, we'll be hard-pressed to stop these ballot measures anywhere."

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