Every Now and Then, Plain Old Politics Works

May 12, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — It would be stretching the point to attribute the Baltimore City Council's decision to reject a surrogate-marriage bill, favored by homosexuals and opposed by mainstream religious groups, to a sudden outbreak of councilmanic common sense.

Probably the council was motivated by plain old politics, concluding that on this issue at least it was safer to vote with the straights than with the gays. But that's all right. In a democracy the people's common sense often finds its clearest expression in their representatives' timidity.

The bill itself, which would have authorized a city registry of ''domestic partnerships,'' wasn't in itself such a big deal. But it had become a totem to proponents and opponents alike, and so the debate turned heated and colorful. The screechy rhetoric made a refreshing change from earnest business like the budget.

On one side was the gay community, along with many of its

political allies from battles past. It was joined, predictably, by much of the local media, which has persuaded itself that this is a civil-rights issue. Thus those backing the bill were routinely depicted as an oppressed minority and those opposing it as ''right-wingers'' -- Kluxers without the sheets.

This story line was complicated, however, by the awkward fact that the heart of the opposition came from the black community -- the churches, the ministers, and the family-oriented parishioners who have been fighting true discrimination for a long, long time.

These folks just didn't look like the bigots, neanderthals, cracker-voiced evangelicals and homophobic Republicans who were supposed to be representing the forces of evil.

The Catholic Church, which has often allowed itself to be assigned the role of villain in such tiffs, had the wit to stand aside. The Baltimore archdiocese issued a reasoned statement opposing the legalization of non-marital domestic partnerships, but otherwise maintained a low profile. This helped confuse the bill's supporters.

What's really involved here, it's pretty obvious to everyone, has little to do with rights and everything to do with status. In Maryland and most other states, homosexual groups are pressing the equivalency button every time an opportunity presents itself. If it isn't domestic partnerships, it's homosexuals' rights to adopt children, to serve openly in the Marines, or to decide what books will be read in school.

The goal is to make society accept homosexual relationships as in every way the equivalent of heterosexual ones. But society, which can tell a sheep from a goat even when the newspapers are insisting they're all the same, isn't buying.

Gay groups attribute that to homophobia, but the polls and the evidence all run the other way. Non-homosexual Americans, for the most part, think gays should be allowed to live their lives without harassment -- but shouldn't be allowed to impose their values on others either.

Making a homosexual relationship -- or an unmarried heterosexual one, for that matter -- the legal equivalent of a marriage may or may not dignify those unions, but it certainly cheapens and diminishes marriage. And that, as the Baltimore City Council was so dramatically reminded this week, doesn't wash very well in the mainstream.

This doesn't mean that legitimate, practical concerns of the gay community can't be addressed. They can be, and they often are. When Baltimore several months ago decided to allow city employees to designate a person other than a spouse to qualify for health benefits, the opposition was much more subdued, and for good reason.

Health benefits are, and (the Clintons notwithstanding) ought to remain, a contractual matter between employer and employee.

If the city chooses to let the employee designate a partner for the sharing of benefits, it may be letting itself in for an administrative nightmare, but it's hard to challenge the decision on moral grounds. (It'll be interesting to see what happens, though, when the first employee goes to court to get his Rottweiler or tropical fish declared eligible for health insurance.)

The proposal that died this week was far more significant than the health-insurance measure. A citywide registry of domestic partners, call it what you will, is nothing less than a substitute for marriage. That's why so many people found it so unacceptable, and made their sentiments unmistakably known.

Marriage is already in serious trouble, and the consequences of that are all around us. Rising illegitimacy is at the heart of our most intractable urban problems. The message so forcefully delivered to Baltimore's City Hall this week is that government actions which further diminish marriage are bad policy and bad politics too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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