A quest both conservative and radical

March 27, 1996|By ELLEN GOODMAN

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In many ways, the Levinsons are the very profile of a traditional couple. They share a last name, a mortgage, two small children and two nondescript dogs. One of them is a stockbroker and the other ''an at-home mom.''

On a typical sun-filled Sunday afternoon, they come back from church, put the children in for a nap, and contemplate trying again to put together the doll house that came with the manufacturer's infamous promise that it was ''easy to assemble.''

But the Levinsons are both women, both lesbians. Though Kathy and Jennifer have been together for 15 years they cannot be legally married. So three years ago, they had a commitment ceremony in their church. And just weeks ago, when Palo Alto became the latest city to set up a domestic-partnership registry, they were the first to register.

They also have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees on contracts for guardianship, for medical power of attorney, for second-parent adoption -- all the relationships usually solidified under the term ''marriage.'' Indeed the couple's experience is testimony to both how conservative and how radical is the quest to formalize same-sex relationships.

On Monday, just north of here in San Francisco, more than 150 gay and lesbian couples took yet another step down the long aisle toward legal marriage. With the media looking on like paid witnesses, the city held the first mass ceremony for gay couples. Pairs of brides and pairs of grooms pledged ''to be responsible for each other and to be committed to a relationship of loyalty and mutual caring.''

But at the end of this dramatic event billed as a gay ''marriage,'' the ebullient mayor, Willie Brown, said, ''I now pronounce you domestic partners.'' As one couple described their clothes and their wedding: ''Not quite a tux, not quite a wedding gown, not quite a marriage.''

The question now is whether the slow procession toward acceptance will come to rest at this imitation marriage or press on to the real thing.

Weddings are in the air because the Hawaii Supreme Court may legalize same-sex marriage unless the state can prove ''a compelling reason'' not to. If same-sex marriage becomes legal in Hawaii, then in theory, any couple married there is married in all 50 states.

What is marriage for?

It's become harder and harder to muster a compelling or even logical legal case against same-sex marriages. If marriage were only for people who could have children together then infertility would be a cause for annulment and post-menopausal women barred from the altar. If it were only to provide a home for child-raising, well, that's what the Levinsons have done.

On the other hand, if the state has an interest in marriage, it is to promote stable long-term relationships. As Kathy Levinson says, ''People in committed relationships take care of each other.''

Today the state may declare unwed people ''married'' in common law, willing or not. There is pressure as well to make divorce harder. Indeed, much of the right-wing rhetoric against the ''homosexual lifestyle'' blasts promiscuity, not domesticity.

But as the furor over gays in the military showed, logic has little place in debates about homosexuality. In San Francisco, the wedding ceremony was greeted with bemused celebration. In Palo Alto, Mayor Lanie Wheeler says that parking problems raised more of a fuss than the domestic-partner registry. But to many in America, same-sex marriage is not just an oxymoron; it's an outrage. So if Hawaii legalizes same-sex marriage, the honeymoon is likely to be brief. And the backlash harsh.

There are 16 states considering measures that would deny the recognition of such marriages; three have already passed such laws. Only in Colorado has a governor vetoed a bill that would ban these marriages. Nationally, the right wing is ready to turn marital vows into political fighting words.

At a time when nearly two-thirds of the American public oppose same-sex marriage, not even Kathy and Jennifer believe that it will happen in their lifetimes. Nor do all pragmatists in the gay-rights movement believe that marriage should be a priority. As one has said, ''You don't build the penthouse until you've constructed the first 19 floors.''

The good news from the attention on same-sex marriage may be that domestic-partnership laws have become the conservative alternative. These laws can and should give committed couples many of the benefits and responsibilities -- from pensions to health care to guardianship -- that are allotted with marriage.

As for marriage itself? Sometimes incremental change is the slowest but safest path down any aisle. For now, as Willie Brown said, we pronounce you domestic partners.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/27/96

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