Hawaiian marriage trap

April 21, 1994|By Gabriel Rotello

GAY POLITICAL leaders have been criticized for walking unprepared into some nasty ambushes recently, notably the gay/military debacle. Many now say that they'll never make another move before gauging the depth of the opposition. But if so, why are they stumbling blindly into what could easily be the mother of all ambushes: the Hawaiian marriage trap?

Hawaii's supreme court recently ruled that the ban on homosexual marriage probably violates that state's constitution. If things continue as they are, the court is expected to rule sometime in the next 18 months that such marriages are legal in Hawaii. Attempts by conservatives to derail the issue through legislation have failed so far, though they're not giving up.

On the surface, this pending victory might seem cause for a national gay celebration. U.S. reciprocity law mandates that marriages legally performed or dissolved in one state be recognized by all, which accounts for the historic popularity of quickie weddings and divorces in places like Nevada. Following that logic, many in the gay movement optimistically predict that homosexuals will soon be able to marry in Maui, then wing home and enjoy the fruits of wedded bliss in Anytown, USA.

But if the battle over the military's gay ban is any example, that flight of fancy may end in a fiery crash landing. Polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans -- even those who support gay rights -- overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage. It doesn't take a Nostradamus to predict that if Americans wake up one morning and discover that a few judges in Hawaii have effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the ensuing backlash will dwarf the gay/military imbroglio.

At the very least it's likely that dozens of states, perhaps most, will seek to avoid Hawaii's fate by amending their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. Conservatives in Congress, however, might not be satisfied with a piecemeal approach that leaves liberal states free to recognize gay marriages. Since the Constitution reserves marriage regulation to the states, the surest way effectively to ban same-sex marriage nationwide is to amend the Constitution.

Such a reaction might seem extreme, and thus extremely unlikely. But recall the hysteria of the gay-military debate and imagine that multiplied manifold by the actual legalization of gay marriage in one U.S. state and the threat of its spread to others. In such a climate an amendment outlawing same-sex marriage would probably be supported by both parties and could conceivably sail through two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states in record time.

Hardwiring homophobia into the very structure of the Constitution would be the Waterloo of gay rights. If worded carefully, such an amendment could result in official second-class status not only for gay relationships, but for homosexuals generally. Amending the constitutions of individual states would be equally damaging to lesbians and gays in those states. Even the mildest possible congressional response, a federal law, would be a catastrophic setback.

Therefore you'd think that, having been caught unprepared by the military mess, lesbian and gay leaders would either be desperately trying to avoid the marriage trap, or frantically preparing for it by alerting rank-and-file gays to the battle ahead, canvassing and lobbying Congress and state legislatures, and most of all trying to sway public attitudes about gay marriage now, before the deluge. Sadly, however, whether through overwork, underfunding, disagreement about marriage as a movement goal or just plain lack of foresight, gay political organizations seem utterly oblivious to the danger. They're limping toward this potential Armageddon as if it were Gays in Uniform, Part II.

Lesbian and gay victories have always been followed by vicious backlashes. Failing to predict that the last time was disastrous. Failing now could be fatal.

Gabriel Rotello is a columnist for New York Newsday.

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