MONDAY, MARCH 15, 1999
California Sen. Pete Knight's initiative proposal for the 2000 ballot called "The Definition of Marriage Initiative" highlights an issue long debated: same-sex marriage.
In recent years, it has become a heated one among state legislatures, especially after Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Individual states are rushing to secure their own bans on same-sex marriages while they have the majority on their sides.
Knight's proposal would not only restrict marriages to be between a man and a woman, but prevent the recognition of legal, out-of-state same-sex marriages.
The text of the initiative is 14 words: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
Dr. Martin McCombs, director of The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Greater Long Beach, believes that favorable Supreme Court rulings supporting same-sex marriage sparked the mass of recent gay-marriage bans. Currently, no state recognizes gay-marriage.
In Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont, gay couples fought their states in court seeking to be legally recognized. None succeeded, but the decisions were so close that legislators have been trying to pass laws preventing their states from recognizing same-sex unions completely.
Same-sex marriage "is one of the most obvious, missing, full and equal rights," McCombs said. "I think there is a large segment of the community that feels this is an important right."
According to the Capitol Resource Institute, an anti-gay lobbyist group in Sacramento, "If homosexual 'marriage' were legalized, it would open a Pandora's box of negative consequences, transforming hundreds of statutes intended to protect marriage into 'gay-rights' laws."
The result, the institute says, will be homosexual couples jointly adopting children, homosexual foster homes, pro-homosexual curriculum in public schools, and gay rights laws that penalize citizens who harm or discriminate against gays.
Same-sex marriage would mean that non-profit organizations, like the Boy Scouts and churches, would be penalized if they refuse to hire homosexuals.
Although many same-sex partners are already living as couples, the lack of state recognition restricts them from receiving many benefits that any legally married couple is entitled to, including employment benefits, joint income tax filing status, insurance, and banking benefits.
Bob Revay, 63, and his partner, Jeff, have been together for nearly 20 years and live near Seattle, Wash.
They would have been married already if it was legally recognized. Revay was married once before to a woman because, he said, that's what society and his parents expected.
"Back when I was growing up," Revay said, "the two things that were unthinkable damages one could do to his family were to either marry a Black person or to be queer. Those were beyond any acceptability."
Revay said he has never had any confrontations or blatant discrimination from individuals because of his sexuality.
"Everybody loves Jeff, and accept him totally," Revay said. "I think the difference is that the people I've been associating with are educated people."
He said he has encountered problems when dealing with other businesses. When he calls creditors or people he wants to do business with, they refuse to talk with him because it is Jeff's business, not his.
"That really annoys me. I cannot go to a pharmacy to get medicine and talk to the pharmacist about it if it's for Jeff. It's because we're not [legally] married," Revay said. "If this were my wife, there would be no hesitation."
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States which had previously rejected same-sex marriage bans are now accepting them. Other states which have the bans are considering dropping them.
The fight for same-sex marriage has been going on for almost 30 years. Prior to 1993, justices used passages from the Bible to support their rulings.
In 1971, in finding against plaintiffs the State Supreme Court judge said, "The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the book of Genesis."
On May 5, 1993, the Hawaiian Supreme Court handed the gay and lesbian community what many considered to be the gay-rights movement's biggest victory ever.
This landmark ruling, known as Baehr vs. Lewin, represents the first time in American legal history that any court has ruled in favor of the idea that it is discriminatory to deny gay men and lesbians the right to marry.
This opened the door to legal marriage for same-gender couples, presenting the very real possibility that they will be able to have the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. After that, Christian and family groups began introducing anti-gay legislation in as many states as possible.
Last year, in Baehr vs. Anderson, the Supreme Court said the state of Hawaii was required to show a "compelling state interest" if it was to continue denying marriage licenses. But while the case was still being decided voters approved a ballot measure banning gay-marriage.
The Hawaiian ruling, even though it has lost its effectiveness, has still made an impact, McCombs said.
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This year, 11 states have proposed ballot initiatives to ban gay marriages: Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas and West Virginia.
In California, there is Knight's referendum. The last four attempts to pass similar measures here, all sponsored by Knight, failed.
Lisa Marie Belsanti, the field coordinator for Policy and Public Affairs at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, is gearing up for the battle California is facing next year. Her group, Californians for Fairness, is an all-volunteer effort being formed to stop the Knight initiative.
"As a community," Belsanti said, "there are so many things that we'd rather do in a proactive stance to help our community and to help with our civil rights, but nine times out of ten we're fighting off attacks like this rather than moving forward in a positive sense."
But many gays and lesbians think it is too soon to worry about marriage, she said. They think that they need to become more accepted and supported in their communities before they can start demanding fair legal treatment.
"Marriage is a wedge issue in the gay and lesbian community," Belsanti said. "But this is a preemptive strike on the part of Sen. Knight to prevent marriage in California from ever happening. His campaign is going to end up in print and on the radio and on television, and on the ads they're going to portray gays and lesbians as some sort of demons to be frightened of.
"That's why we're going to fight this tooth and nail. We don't want conservatives or the Religious Right defining who we are."
If and when just one state decides to allow and recognize gay marriages, it will take on an even greater national significance. Because of the so-called full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, in which one state must recognize the laws and contracts of another, any disputes over that provision could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since most of the state laws say they will not recognize gay marriages, a form of contract, from other states, they all may be found unconstitutional if challenged.
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Peter Truong, a 21-year-old computer programmer, considers himself married through the simple exchange of vows between him and his partner. He wants the legal status, but never wanted to have a marriage performed in a church because, he said, he constantly hears the disgust most churches and churchgoers have for him.
"I believe that when the church can love, can tolerate, can be non-discriminatory and non-biased," Truong said, "then maybe they can start preaching that themselves. I just think the church is so damn hypocritical.
"I believe in God, I just don't believe the church is correctly representing him. I think they're using God as an excuse for their own intolerance and hatred."
"It'll take a while, but I think it's impossible to deny that not giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples is an infringement of civil rights."
Belsanti is also hopeful for the future.
"In the long term," Belsanti said, "we're hoping it'll
raise awareness of who we really are. The end result will be greater understanding
of gay and lesbian human lives being equal to any other human life."