Wedding Jitters

In California, gay-rights activists are fighting the same-sex marriage battle on two fronts: one against conservative legislator Pete Knight’s Defense of Marriage initiative, and one against the ambivalence of the gay community.


Pete Knight is no light touch. The politician first distinguished himself in the California Assembly six years ago when he distributed among his Republican colleagues a poem that characterized illegal immigrants as lazy, greedy, and bent on taking over the state. “We have a hobby, it’s called breeding. Welfare pay[s] for baby feeding,” it jeered.

Several civil rights advocates and Assembly Latino Caucus leader Richard Polanca joined together in protesting the xenophobic poem, forcing Knight to apologize on the Assembly floor. But he has not been cowed. Now a member of the state Senate, the former Air Force pilot is making headlines once again — this time for his campaign against gay marriage.

He might just succeed this time — he’s chosen an issue that simultaneously unites his right-wing allies and divides the gay community.

Knight has tasted failure on this issue. He made three ill-fated attempts to pass an anti-same-sex marriage bill in the California Legislature. This time Knight is taking the issue directly to voters. His supporters have collected enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the California ballot in the presidential primary next March. If passed, the initiative would block the legal recognition in California of same-sex marriages performed in other states. Such a law would perhaps override the “full faith and credit” provision of the Constitution, which many legal scholars interpret as mandating that marriages performed in one state be recognized in all the others.

With that in mind, gay-rights activists have waged a near-decade long court fight to legalize gay marriage in Hawaii. Gay couples across the country anticipated a time when they could be wed in Hawaii and return to their home states with a legal claim to treatment by the government equal to that accorded straight married couples. But instead, the Hawaii case, still tied up in the state’s courts, prompted a rash of “defense of marriage” laws in state legislatures and on voter ballots across the country. They have become law in 30 of those states so far.

Today the statutes seem moot, as no state has yet legalized same-sex unions. However, observers hope the Vermont Supreme Court will make that state the first this summer. Legal advocates hope to seize the opportunity to prove that “defense of marriage” bills are unconstitutional and — some argue — knock them all down like dominoes.

But some in the gay community may not want them to. The Knight Initiative brings into sharp relief a controversy that has dogged the gay-rights movement since the Hawaii campaign began. A significant segment of the gay community views marriage as an obsolete and dysfunctional institution which it is reluctant to adopt as its own. Legal scholar and activist Paula Ettelbrick wrote that marriage would “make us more invisible, force our assimilation into the mainstream, and undermine the goals of gay liberation,” adding, “The thought of emphasizing our sameness to married heterosexuals in order to obtain this ‘right’ terrifies me.”

Executive director of the All Our Families Coalition Cheryl Deaner wants to marry her partner, with whom she shares legal custody of their young son. However, she said she recognizes that, for many who have been shunned by their families for being gay, “Family starts to sound like the F-word to you.” For others, it’s a practical matter: Colorado philanthropist Tim Gill suggested that some wealthy gays (though not himself) may oppose marriage because it would obligate them to pay alimony if they divorce.

But many gays and lesbians strongly support marriage. “Going for marriage is like shooting for the moon,” Human Rights Campaign director Elizabeth Birch told Time,“It’s our hardest issue, but success would bring the greatest rewards.”

Supporters argue that marriage would offer equal protection under the law. As long as straight people may marry and enjoy its legal benefits, marriage advocates say, denying those benefits to gays and lesbians violates their constitutional rights. Activists have already begun to accrue through domestic partnership legislation some of the legal rights afforded heterosexual married couples, and with much less backlash from the right than the marriage issue has brought. Still, many argue that a separate institution is inherently an unequal one.

The division runs deep in the gay community, and it shows in the bottom line of the anti-Knight campaign; In fact, the pro-Knight forces have outraised the initiative’s opposition by four to one. Though there has always been tension in the gay community over which battles should be priorities, the division over dedicating precious resources to the same-sex marriage issue may be the most pronounced ever. Perhaps most significantly, the donors who have come through on the major issues in the past are hesitant to invest in what many feel is a lost cause. John Duran, a gay-rights attorney and major Los Angeles fundraiser, said he had no trouble raising $50,000 to send the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus to Russia, but on Knight, “the major donors are sitting on their hands.”

One such donor may be Gill, who founded Quark Inc. Though he wrote the largest check to the opposition campaign in Hawaii — giving $300,000 according to Out Magazine— he recently told an audience at Harvard University that he would not contribute to the “No on Knight” campaign. (His office demurs that he hasn’t decided yet whether to contribute.)

The Human Rights Campaign, which headed up the opposition in Hawaii and raised $1.6 million for the cause, has decided to do much less for California. The national gay-rights lobbying group reportedly made its decision because it believed gay-rights groups in California were stronger than those in Hawaii and therefore would need less support. However, Campaign board member Michael Duffy said he prefers to spend the organization’s resources on other priorities because, “I hate to fight a fight on the terms set by the other side.”

But there are more reasons the usual united front is missing on this issue. No matter how high the stakes, many see the issue as unwinnable in today’s political climate, a belief that was bolstered last year in Hawaii. After spending more than a million dollars fighting an anti-same-sex marriage initiative in the heavily-Democratic state last year, gay marriage initiatives got clobbered at the polls, losing 70 to 30 percent. A similar initiative in Alaska also lost miserably. In 1996, Congress passed — and President Clinton signed — the “Defense of Marriage Act,” which denied federal recognition of marriage and bolstered the exclusionary laws now on the books in 30 states.

“Defense of marriage” proponents have already shown they are out to block more than same-gender weddings, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Jenny Pizer. Today, in states with restrictive statutes, the right wing is arguing that since the majority of voters opposes same-sex unions, the courts should overturn local domestic partnership ordinances and deny gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt.

The political costs of losing the marriage battle can be high, as well, says UCLA professor Rob Hennig, co-chair of California’s statewide gay-rights lobby group, the California Alliance for Pride and Equality (CAPE). If Knight passes, he said, politicians will think there are “no costs [associated with] going against lesbian and gay rights.” Even gay-friendly legislators may interpret overwhelming losses on marriage initiatives as a complete rejection of gay and lesbian rights by their constituencies — and vote accordingly.

Hennig, along with many others, also argues that the benefits of fighting are significant — even if the anti-Knight campaign loses. If the community takes advantage of the inevitable media attention to promote positive images of committed gay and lesbian couples, it could “get people who are not gay or lesbian to understand … who gay and lesbian people are,” he said. The campaign is “an enormous opportunity to fight … stereotypes.” No on Knight campaign manager Mike Marshall concurs, adding, “I don’t need this initiative to be defeated; I need to live in a society that says no to this.”

Despite division in the community, those who are driving the “No on Knight” campaign are say it is taking off. Early on, Eric Bauman, president of California’s Stonewall Democratic Club of Los Angeles County, opposed spending precious resources on what he saw as a losing battle. He has since changed his mind. “Never give the scumbags what they want without making them fight for it,” he now declares. Most importantly for the campaign, some have jumped onto the bandwagon with their checkbooks. Gay-rights honcho David Mixner said he and about 20 of his deep-pocketed fundraising buddies recently decided to join the crusade. Though he admitted to being a little gun-shy after Hawaii, he said now “there is enthusiasm building.”