Gay Day

What are the national political implications of gay marriage in Massachusetts?

| Tue May 18, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Should the wedding bells ringing for gay couples in Massachusetts spark celebration or sound an alarm for the 50-ish percent of Americans hoping to send Bush back to Texas this November?

Kerry will find it difficult to remind voters that while he doesn't back editing the Constitution to seal his case, he does oppose gay marriage. Yet the nuances of courting middle-of-the-road voters by supporting civil unions without speaking the "M word" are hard to convey in sound bites. Worse, Massachusetts is Kerry's home state, and it's where the Democratic National Convention will be held this summer. "Massachusetts liberal" just took on a whole new layer of meaning. Expect to hear it a lot.

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Conservatives didn't pick same-sex marriage as an issue to spotlight during the election year, but right-wing groups are leaping at the chance to rally Republicans around the traditionalist cause. The gay marriage debate is further polarizing America and promises to drive the conservative legions to the polls this November to return Bush to the White House. Or does it?

A Gallup poll shows that 42 percent of Americans now support gay marriage, a big jump from just 31 percent late last year. And on Monday the protests against gay unions in the Bay State and in the nation's capital were few and far between.

Still, opponents of gay marriage are stockpiling legal ammunition at the state level to gain ground in this culture war. They already have on their side the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between opposite genders.

At least 20 states are mobilizing to support Bush's constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And the issue will reach state ballots in November, helping, Republicans hope, to boost voter turnout for the presidential election.

Groups like Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum (which helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 80s) are decrying the "activist judges" in Massachusetts who passed gay marriage by a narrow 4-3 in November. After all, any U.S. decisions to grant marriage licenses happened from the bench or from a politician's desk, not by any referendum by the people. Until Massachusetts, courts deemed decisions such as those by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as civil disobedience. Conservatives are trying to push the issue to a popular vote in key swing voter states, including Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, North Carolina and Arkansas and Missouri.

The conservative National Review opines:

If same-sex marriage were triumphing as a result of popular support, it would be pointless to try to stop it by constitutional amendment. But that is not what is happening. Judges are imposing it on the theory that constitutional guarantees of equality and due process entail it. But the law discriminates against no person by maintaining marriage as what it is. The law makes no inquiries into sexual desire: A gay man and a lesbian can get married in any state, if they so choose. The question here is one of definition, not eligibility.

On Monday, as Kerry's strategists were probably holding their heads in their hands, Bush was already reminding voters where he stands.

As John Scagliotti points out in the Nation, "It was "identity politics" (the calculated appeal to fear of homosexuals, fear of women's emancipation, fear of blacks, period) that gave the Republicans their electoral victories and put Bush I and II into the White House."

CK Rairden of the Washington Dispatch sees the developments as "political quicksand for the left":

Mainstream America will sit down to dinner tonight and see same sex couples expressing to love, honor and cherish in marriage ceremonies and it will be sealed with a kiss and likely carried on the evening news. While this won't shock many in the liberal Northeastern states, or on the left coast---it will infuriate Middle America. It will shock them in a way similar to the sexually deranged photos that stumbled onto their TV screens from the Abu Ghraib prison earlier this month, and it will shift the focus of outrage for many from a prison in Iraq to courthouses sprinkled all over Massachusetts.

Republicans have been handed a gift from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

However, liberal optimists like Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force told The New York Times, "As this discussion has gone on and people have seen these images of regular people thrilled to be married, it has dispelled the myth and a lot of the fear around same-sex marriage."

Is his view too sunny? After all, homophobia is still prevalent even among people who are liberal on other issues. For straight people conditioned to reject homosexual relations as natural, the image of two beaming brides induces nausea. Yet many Americans who find homosexuality troubling nevertheless believe that gay couples deserve protections, such as the right to make medical decisions for an ill partner. People with this compassionate, conservative view are more likely to support Kerry's civil union stance--if they're hearing his voice among the clamor.

Many conservatives may not like gay marriage, but feel that tinkering with the Constitution is the wrong way to tackle it. Groups like the gay Log Cabin Republicans are blasting Bush's plan to alter the Constitution. In 2000 Dick Cheney promoted the notion that states, not the feds, should decide matters of personal liberty such as gay marriage. Seems he had a change of heart. Anti-gay marriage activists are lobbying Washington for a constitutional amendment, but that doesn't seem to be going anywhere this year.

And The New York Times describes a "tepid response from the pews" contrary to the expectation of vigorous activism in traditional churches.

Laura Conaway of the Village Voice believes that gay marriage opponents like Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will fade into irrelevance, "like a modern George Wallace." She knows that younger people overwhelmingly support gay marriage, as polls conducted by MTV show. While Conaway's view might be prescient for the long-term, the trend toward greater acceptance for gay marriage may not help the Kerry cause in 2004. And even those celebrating the recent nuptials are short of a victory, because their marriages are unlikely to hold up across the Massachusetts state line.