No reason to retreat in the fight for gay rights

December 16, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Ever since the election, I've been carrying around a small newspaper clipping with an Alabama dateline. It tells how the voters rejected a referendum to cleanse their constitution of language that once required segregated schools.

Some embarrassed citizens insist that the vote was not really about race. They say that ballot question was framed by its opponents as a backdoor way to raise taxes. They remind me that the Alabama Constitution has as many amendments as my city has parking meters.

But there's no way around the fact that half a century after Brown vs. Board of Education, Alabamans left discrimination enshrined in their constitution. There's no way around the fact that 40 years after Gov. George Wallace declared "segregation forever," some portion of Alabamans are still not "ready" for integration.

I raise this because there's a lot of conversation in the aftermath of the election about civil rights and the pace of change, especially around the issue of gay marriage.

One of the more tenacious ideas about the 2004 presidential election is that same-sex marriage dunnit. The decision to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts and the pictures of weddings in San Francisco, New York and Oregon "energized" the Republican base and re-elected the president.

Well, not exactly. Eleven states had ballot amendments against gay marriage, but eight of those states were unalterably Republican. In the three battleground states, Sen. John Kerry actually did better than Al Gore. All in all, only 2 percent of voters said gay rights were their most important issue. And Mr. Kerry, we need to remember, opposed same-sex marriage.

At heart are the old questions: Do you wait for people to be more comfortable to make change? Or do people only become more comfortable in the wake of change? Do you sacrifice incremental benefits by going for the whole enchilada? Or do small changes merely sustain the status quo?

Evan Wolfson, the author of Why Marriage Matters, says that "the classic American pattern of civil rights advances is a patchwork of advances, resistance, regression, all at the same time." Today, the map of America looks decidedly like a patchwork quilt.

In Oregon, 3,000 couples asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday if their marriages are still legal. In California, one assemblyman just introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. Two other assembleymen introduced a bill that would not only outlaw these marriages but strip gay couples of domestic partnership rights.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, gay couples who work for the state are losing their benefits because of the vote to ban same-sex marriage "and similar unions." In Massachusetts, some employers are eliminating benefits for unmarried gay couples because they now have equal access to the altar.

The gay rights movement is not solely about marriage, and there are real gains in pursuing health benefits and Social Security. Activists do, as Hilary Rosen of the Human Rights Campaign says, need to tell the everyday stories of couples barred from hospital rooms and from health coverage.

But if we waited for comfort levels to rise, would we still have laws against interracial marriage? Would we still be waiting for Alabama to get comfortable with integration?

Four years ago, Vermont took the radical step of legalizing civil unions. Now civil unions are the moderate position. Does anyone think this would have happened without marriage on the agenda?

Last year, same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts with a huge uproar. But the sky never fell, and the uproar became a low hum. In The Advocate, Ms. Rosen worried, "This election may have shown us that the change agents for gay marriage are looking too much like a noisy red Ferrari speeding down quiet Main Street."

But in Massachusetts, they now look more like an SUV with two parents, a kid and a golden retriever on a quiet suburban street. We've even begun the next chapter in equality: same-sex divorce.

There is nothing that the gay community can do to appease its opponents except perhaps disappear. But in one of the exit polls that got less attention, 60 percent of voters favor either gay marriage or civil unions. The younger the voters, the more likely they are to favor marriage. That's not a bugle sounding retreat.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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