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Changing the Terms of Debate

November 9th, 2009 1 comment

An opinion piece in today’s Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey paper, argues that that there’s no need to “rush” gay marriage through a lame-duck session of the  legislature. (Outgoing Governor Corzine will sign it if it reaches him before his term expires in January; Governor-elect Christie would veto such a measure.)

Whatever the merits of the argument about enacting laws during a lame-duck session, something else about the piece was noteworthy. The editors, after noting that marriage equality has been consistently voted down when put up as a referendum, said:

[Gay marriage] is legal in five states, but only through acts of legislatures or by court mandates.

Only” through acts of legislatures? This is called “representative democracy,” by the way. It’s not perfect, which is why courts are standing by to pass on the constitutionality of measures enacted. But matters are far worse when rights are put up for popular vote. Then there’s no filter between the most visceral impulses of the “mob” and the protection of minorities. As Jesse Ventura (remember him?) aptly stated in the wake of the Maine marriage equality vote:

“You can’t put a civil rights issue on the ballot and let the people decide. You have to have elected officials to who have courage to make the right decision. If you left it up to the people, we’d have slavery, depending on how you worded it.” (h/t Joe.My.God)

It’s bad enough that many states allow just this sort of popularity contest on basic rights. Journalists shouldn’t be making it worse by suggesting that the legislature is somehow subordinate to the plebiscite.

What are they Celebrating?

November 6th, 2009 No comments

I was struck by this photo:

Here we see ebullient supports of anti-gay discrimination beaming with delight at having set back marriage equality in Maine. Now, I too get euphoric over victory. You work so hard, you win, you’re happy. I’ve been known to crow over a win at Yatzhee! But what, exactly, are they celebrating beyond the fact of the triumph itself? That gay marriages won’t be taught in school? That their own marriages won’t be challenged by something they’re not comfortable with? Yes — that, and more.

What lies at the heart of this last stand against full equality for gay and lesbian citizens is a lingering sense that we never should have come out. No one in 2009  is so unsophisticated as to repeat Anita Bryant’s dictum from the first round of the gay rights wars that “We wish you’d all just go back into the closet,” but their circumlocutions don’t effectively disguise an identical view. It’s most obvious in the one effective scare tactic remaining to them — the effort to invoke the indoctrination of innocent children. “Gay marriage will be taught in schools! It’s supposed to be unspeakable.”

But whether or not a state recognizes civil unions, same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships, or none of the above, in fact many classes will contain the kids of same-sex couples. And, marriage equality or no, many practical educators will use the diversity before them — including single parents, kids raised by other relatives, or adopted, or in foster care, or…. — to teach their students about respect for all families.

In so doing, they are also seeding the ground for kids who are from traditional families but who might happen to be gay. Whatever’s taught in the home, if kids hear in school and other social settings that families are of all sorts and stripes, including gay, they might be expected to suffer less trauma when they assay that leap of faith across the chasm, joining the community of supportive gays on the other side. Little of this seems to have occurred to equality opponents, who have found an effective political bludgeon, and are willing to gamble that none of their kids will turn out gay.

There’s something else at work, too. Consider this excerpt from Lisa Belkin’s article to be published in this Sunday’s Times, where she summarizes studies done on the children of same-sex (mostly lesbian)  parents. After noting that such kids do just as well as children raised by heterosexual  parents, she says:

More enlightening than the similarities, however, are the differences, the most striking of which is that these children tend to be less conventional and more flexible when it comes to gender roles and assumptions than those raised in more traditional families.

There are data that show, for instance, that daughters of lesbian mothers are more likely to aspire to professions that are traditionally considered male, like doctors or lawyers — 52 percent in one study said that was their goal, compared with 21 percent of daughters of heterosexual mothers, who are still more likely to say they want to be nurses or teachers when they grow up. (The same study found that 95 percent of boys from both types of families choose the more masculine jobs.) Girls raised by lesbians are also more likely to engage in “roughhousing” and to play with “male-gendered-type toys” than girls raised by straight mothers. And adult children of gay parents appear more likely than the average adult to work in the fields of social justice and to have more gay friends in their social mix.

Heterosexual couples might want to pay attention to these results. While the gay-marriage debate is playing out on the public stage, a more private debate is taking place in kitchens and bedrooms over who does what in a heterosexual marriage (takes out the trash, spends more time with the kids, feels free to head out with their friends for a beer). The philosophical underpinnings of both conversations — gay marriage and equality in parenting — are similar, in that both focus on equality for adults (in the case of heterosexuals, mostly wives). But even if parents who seek parity do so for their own sanity and in pursuit of their own ideals, might it not also be better for their children?

Yes, if less conventional, more tolerant children are your goal. Because if the children of gays and lesbians are different, it is presumably related to the way they were raised — by parents with a view of domestic roles that differs from most of their heterosexual peers.

In sum,  according to Belkin: “Same-sex couples, it seems, are less likely to impose certain gender-based expectations on their children.”

Perhaps, at root, that’s what the strongest opponents of equality most fear.

Reading the Maine Marriage Equality Setback

November 4th, 2009 No comments

Let’s face it; this loss in Maine is tough to swallow. Here’s a comment from a despondent reader:

I know after some rest I’ll even out and get back to the business of living, but right now I feel very done with the ballot box, and donating, and phone-banking, and talking myself blue in the face, etc. I honestly don’t feel its proper to submit the rights of a minority to a popular vote and I’m not up for any further indignities at this time. I’m sure I’ll come around and get on with it like everyone else, but right now … I don’t know.

It’s easy to feel this way, especially after the heady victories over the past year throughout New England and in Iowa. There’s a brick wall that still hasn’t been battered down: When voters have been asked to weigh in on marriage equality, they consistently vote against us. We’d likely win in a state like Vermont, and maybe in a few other places, but we’re not there yet in most places — even, as we saw, in California or Maine. Nor is the Maine story as “spinnable” in our favor as the California narrative, because this time the equality forces outspent their opponents, and did the very kind of door-to-door campaigning that was supposed to result in victory. It’s tempting to join the reader’s pessimistic appraisal, and ask:  “What’s left to try”?

It’s fair enough to feel that way on the day after such a devastating loss. But two things seem worth saying. First, we should acknowledge that there is indeed something wrong with putting minority rights up to a vote by the majority. But of course the constitutional or, in Maine, referendum, process in many states allows just this sort of result. Judicial challenges, as we’ve seen, are risky, too. One day (not soon) the U.S. Supreme Court may put an end to this state-by-state denial of basic equality, but for now, we’re stuck with the political process. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, as it forces us (or should) to continue to engage our neighbors about our lives, and their value.

Second, we’re pushing closer and closer to that 50% threshold. It seems right now that we’re in the 47-48% range in more socially progressive states, so we’ve not far to go. And when the (in this sense) toxic word “marriage” is taken out of the equation, we’ve now cleared that majority hurdle: It looks as though the Washington full domestic partnership ordinance will stand. This result mirrors national polls, which now consistently show a majority in favor of at least marriage-in-all but name status for same-sex couples. It’s literally the word “marriage” — and its manifold, deeply embedded religious and cultural significance for many (including same-sex couples, of course) — that keeps the wall standing.

But let’s keep this in mind: In 2009, we’re already there, in many places, on equality in all-but-name. In a few states, we’ve even crossed the barrier on marriage. In several others, we’re close. Now think about where we were a decade ago. From that perspective, our progress has been nothing short of astonishing.

As a father with two young kids, I’m determined that they grow up in a place where their family is valued. As a citizen married in all but law to my spouse, I demand equality. Nothing else will, or should, placate us. I still believe — I still know — that we will get there, and soon.

Victory in Maine Would be Monumental, However Close the Vote

November 4th, 2009 1 comment

Andrew Sullivan is wrong in saying:

“I should say this about Maine. Whoever wins this vote will do so by the slimmest of margins. I don’t think it therefore represents much of a victory for either the pro-gay or anti-gay forces. It represents an essential 50-50 split. Maybe the coming results will alter that. But all we find out from Maine is that this is a very evenly divided state on this subject.”

I couldn’t disagree more. If marriage equality holds in Maine, it will be the first time that voters, faced with a decision about marriage equality only, decided that same-sex couples were entitled to not only the same rights and privileges as they, but to the same dignity and respect, as well. And because this will have been achieved by voters — not by courts, or even by legislatures — the right’s one remaining, populist argument disappears. No longer would they be able to crow that, whenever “the people” get to vote, “traditional marriage” wins.

That’s a huge, perhaps tectonic, shift towards marriage equality.

A Few Thoughts As We Await Decisions in Maine and Washington

November 3rd, 2009 2 comments

(Some thoughts are flying around up here, and I want to get them down and disseminated quickly. So this post will be link-free, at least in its first version.)

Within the hour, we might know whether Maine voters have decided to let the marriage equality bill enacted last summer stand. Update: It appears that this will go into  the wee hours. As of about 11 pm  EST, only 22% of precincts had reported, and the vote was essentially tied. Find updates here.

Later, we’ll have an answer to the slightly less dramatic question of whether the Washington electorate (or the tiny percentage of it that votes in mid-term elections, anyway) will let stand the comprehensive civil union bill that was passed into law a few months ago, or will overturn it and thereby cause the state to revert to the slightly less generous version of civil union status that previously existed. (Still awake?)

I feel like I’ve been going on about these issues forever (I’m hardly the only one), and I sometimes find myself wondering: What’s left to say? When I read that there were literally hundreds of  people scheduled to testify on the D.C. marriage equality bill, I’ll confess that my first reaction was one of numbness.

Haven’t we already made the case? How many more tearful children of same-sex couples will need to speak to the often-subtle, but real, shame that most states continue to enforce by fencing their parents — really, the whole family — out of a basic civil right? How many more visions of apocalypse will be described and displayed by opponents? We can all see, I think, how this is going to end, so  — why isn’t it ending?

Because it’s marriage, and a (shrinking) majority of people remain uncomfortable with a change of this magnitude. Marriage equality is either radicalism dressed up as conservatism, or the other way around, and that ambiguity has both spawned endless scholarly debate and given much of  the electorate cold feet. Better, some say, to stay away from the religiously charged lightning rod of “marriage” and offer the deliberately bland “domestic partnership” or “civil union” as a supposed virtual equivalent. In a limited sense, this is a good strategy: Washington’s domestic partnership law is quite likely to pass; Prop 8 took away marriage but left full domestic partnership status in place; and both Vermont and New Hampshire used the “civil union” to grease the skids towards full marriage equality. Even in Maine, equality opponents seem ready to accept civil unions, just not “marriage.”

I won’t go on about why the whole idea of marriage-in-all-but-name is unacceptable. It suffices to say that once one’s willing to grant all of the benefits but withhold the name, what is left is pure discrimination. If you have trouble seeing this, here’s a quick thought experiment: Imagine that the proposal were to call same-sex unions “marriages” but to rename opposite-sex unions “civil unions.” Acceptable? Q.E.D.

Everyone cares about marriage because that’s the status we understand, and that’s valued. As far as gay people in committed, long-term relationships are concerned, we are married in every way that matters. We just need the law to catch up, and thereby serve its valuable symbolic and educational role in changing hearts, minds, and practices in the many everyday ways that pass unnoticed. Consider this homely example:

A couple of years ago, we  bought an unnecessarily large fridge from Sears, which should change its slogan to: Where Americans Suffer Thoughtless Customer Service Procedures. Every time our adhesive service contract comes up for renewal, whoever answers the phone is asked whether she can speak to “Mr. or Mrs. Culhane.” Every time,  we tell the voice that this is a same-sex household1 and that we’ve told them this before. The reaction: “I’m sorry, but that’s the way we are required to speak.”

Really? In 2009? Yes; and Sears is  hardly the only company from whom we’ve gotten this treatment. There’s nothing sinister about it, and it comes even at the hands of other gays: When I told my retirement portfolio counselor about my “spouse,” she then proceeded to ask a question about “her.” (When I corrected her, she quickly disclosed that she “also was gay.”)

What does any of this have to do with Maine? Plenty. If we don’t win today, soon we will. As more and more people realize that the most important political act they can take part in is to be out, out, out, our numbers, proximity, and lives will work their transformative change on an ever-swelling number of our fellow citizens. Things are moving fast, now. It took Mainers three tries to support their state legislature’s sexual orientation anti-discrimination bill. Expect the much more cutting-edge marriage bill to pass either today, or next time.

We are pushing on the wheel of history, and everyone can hear the creak.

  1. Well, we only used the italics this last time.

Why Maine Matters

October 31st, 2009 1 comment

Winter has already come to parts of Maine. In the ominously named “Caribou,” several inches of snow have already fallen, and the western part of the state has  experienced a “wintry mix” – which sounds like a snack from a bad holiday party.

So spare a thought for the ground warriors up there, slogging through this mess in their door-to-door campaign to tip the very tight race on gay marriage in their favor. That’s a good tactic in a small state, but really: Who cares? Why have millions of dollars come cascading into the state in an effort to influence this question? It turns out that more is at stake here than most people realize.

First, some background: This past May, a marriage equality bill was signed into law. But Maine law allows citizens the “People’s Veto,” whereby a small percentage of citizens can ask their fellow Mainers to reject recently passed laws.

So, this coming Tuesday, voters will decide ballot Question 1, which asks whether the new law should be rejected. And the pelts are flying. The “Yes on 1” forces ran an ad that had unspecified “legal experts” predicting apocalypse –including a flood of lawsuits and “homosexual marriage taught in schools” – were the law to stand. The State’s Attorney General, Janet Mills, said that she’d “scoured” the law for any mention of marriage in state-wide educational curricula, but found none. “Yes on 1” answered that by calling Mills’s opinion “a shameless political ploy.” And so on.

What’s really at stake here? Just that a few thousand same-sex couples might get to marry? Even that’s not as big a deal as you might think. “Yes on 1” spokesman Mark Mutty, in what was surely the dreariest debate on an important topic ever televised, was willing to just about throw the baby out with the bathwater, conceding that gay couples should have the same rights as straight ones – just without the name “marriage.”

But the anti-equality forces are running out of rhetorical weapons, and a loss in Maine would strip them of an important one. When courts demanded marriage equality, “robed activists” were the problem. Next, when legislatures passed equality bills,those exercises in representative democracy weren’t…democratic, because they had been hijacked by special  interests. “Whenever the people have voted,” they say, “’traditional marriage’ wins.”

In a few days, they might not be able to say that, either. If this law stands, the final wall will have been breached.

Teaching Marriage (and Respect) in Maine Schools

October 29th, 2009 No comments

This Letter to the Editor in the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel caught my eye:

I’ve been a member of the Waterville Board of Education and its curriculum committee for almost 13 years. I am also an attorney.

I am disturbed by false assertions that the marriage equality law would lead to homosexual marriage being taught in our schools. There is no state-mandated marriage curriculum, and the new law has nothing to do with what schools will teach.

The Department of Education, the Attorney General, and the No on 1 campaign itself have made that clear.

Nevertheless, opponents of marriage equality charge that gay marriage will be taught in schools, over parents’ objections, if the law isn’t repealed. This is simply untrue. Not only is curriculum a matter of local control, Maine law (20-A M.R.S.A sec. 6209) provides for accommodation in instances where course content conflicts with the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of a student’s parent or guardian.

Beyond curriculum, the reality is that some children in our schools are being raised by same-sex parents now. Their friends learn about their families just as they learn that some children have stepparents, one parent, adoptive parents, grandparents, or others who serve as guardians. Families have many different faces.

The children of same-sex couples deserve the same legal protections as others. Maine schools need to be places where every student is safe and respected. Denying same-sex families the protections of civil marriage would only undermine that goal.

Voting “no” on Question 1 will uphold a law that protects Maine families and kids by extending fundamental civil rights to same-sex couples. At the same time, it protects the rights of parents and churches, which have the right to their own beliefs and restrictions regarding marriage.

Joan Phillips-Sandy

Waterville

Can we please put this issue to rest, already? But even if we do, will it make a difference? Not according to this gloomy forecast cum assessment of the general political situation.

What Obama (Really) Thinks About Maine Question 1

October 28th, 2009 No comments

Where does Obama stand on Maine’s ballot Question 1, which, if  passed, would reject the state’s marriage equality law before it ever takes effect? As we used to be told in high school social studies class, compare and contrast:

1. In response to a question from the Advocate about his view on the referenda in Maine and Oregon:

“The President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples, and as he said at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, he believes ‘strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away.’ Also at the dinner, he said he supports, ‘ensuring that committed gay couples have the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country.’”

2. Attorney General Eric Holder, replying to essentially the same question from a reporter after an event at the University of Maine:

“[The president and I] are of the view it is for states to make these decisions. That federal law [DOMA] is not necessarily a good piece of legislation, and we are going to work to repeal it….”

What th–?

When I read the first (and earlier) quote above, I did notice that the question had been answered with the circumspection and avoidance that too often characterizes (and results in caricature of) the legal profession:  Read carefully, the statement doesn’t take a position on Question 1, because it’s not clear that a right is being “taken away.” One might argue that this case is different from California, where marriage equality was in effect — gay and lesbian couples by the thousands had married — and then taken away. Under Maine law, same-sex couples’ right to marry wasn’t, in a sense, “complete” until the date for challenging the the new statute through the referendum process had expired. So is a “right” being taken away by a Yes on 1 vote? Yes and no.

Given Holder’s more recent statement, though, it’s clear that Obama’s avoidance reflects a willfully agnostic position on Question 1. In short:  he’s not with us on this, at least not in any way that’s useful. Is anyone surprised? If we lose by a point or two, I’ll know exactly where to place the blame.

That hate crimes uplift disappeared quickly, didn’t it?