HOUSTON VOICE www.houstonvoice.com
DECEMBER 12, 2003 9
Gays in Congress deal with marriage backlash
MARRIAGE, continued from Page 1
fits provided through Vermont's civil unions
law, or about to be enacted through
California's super domestic partners law, are
nice stepping stones that help some gay cou
pies now. But, the ultimate goal is for same-
sex couples to be able to get married in all 50
states and the District of Columbia.
Wolfson, a gay rights attorney, said he's
concerned that incorrect information surfacing in the news media is misleading
rank and file gays and their straight supporters into thinking a civil union is equal
to civil marriage in all respects except its
name. Confusion over the difference
between civil marriage and civil unions.
Wolfson said, could hurt efforts to achieve
full marriage rights.
"Gay people should not enter into a discussion of bargaining against ourselves,"
A newly formed coalition of African
American gays raised the issue of civil
unions versus marriage rights this week in
announcing plans to launch a $100,000
media campaign promoting same-sex marriage in the black community.
"Civil unions is separate and unequal,"
said Keith Boykin, co-founder of the
National Black Justice Coalition. Boykin, a
White House special assistant in the Clinton
administration, compared civil unions to
the past U.S. policies of racial segregation,
which labeled mandatory all-black school
districts as "separate but equal."
"Our whole notion is you don't go half a
loaf for civil rights," said Mandy Carter,
one of the African-American gay civil
rights leaders who joined Boykin in forming the black coalition.
"We don't want to settle for domestic
partnership or civil unions, not that they're
not important," Carter said. "But if we're
going to go out and advocate, what we want
is full marriage equality"
Unions don't offer full rights
The concept of civil unions first surfaced in Vermont in 1999, when the
Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the
state's marriage law excluding marriage
rights and benefits for same-sex couples
Rep Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she applauds
gays striving for full marriage rights. (Photo by
violated the Vermont Constitution. The
court ruling gave the legislature the option
of changing the law to allow same-sex marriages or legal "unions" that offered the
same rights or benefits provided by the
state for heterosexual married couples. The
state legislature, faced with a highly controversial issue, chose the civil unions option,
backed by the state's governor at the time,
Howard Dean, now the frontrunner for the
Democratic presidential nomination.
The same-sex marriage versus civil
unions issue surfaced once again this year
when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court issued a ruling nearly identical to
Vermont's high court. However, some legal
experts have said that the Massachusetts
ruling requires the legislature to open up
the state's marriage law to full, same-sex
marriage, with no legal wiggle room to
form civil unions. Others have disagreed.
If the legislature fails to act by a court-
imposed deadline of May 15,2004, a number
of legal analysts, including gay rights attorneys, say the court itself may declare same-
sex marriage to be legal in Massachusetts
and order the state to provide marriage
licenses to same-sex couples.
Before the Massachusetts ruling, civil
unions became a hot topic in the
Democratic presidential election campaign,
as six of the nine Democrats running for
president said they support civil unions
over gay marriage. Three candidates lagging in the polls — former Senator Carol
Moseley Braun of Illinois, Rep. Dennis
Kucinich of Ohio, and the Rev. Al Sharpton
of New York — have declared their support
for same-sex marriage.
The six leading candidates, including
Dean, have argued that civil unions provide
all the legal benefits conferred by marriage.
Dean, who signed Vermont's civil union law
as governor, has said he also favors a federal law providing federal marital benefits
and rights to those joined in civil unions.
Gay rights attorneys concede that legalizing same-sex marriage in any state,
including Massachusetts, would not provide with the many rights and benefits associated with marriage to gay couples that
come from the federal government, including tax deductions, immigration rights and
Social Security survivor benefits.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act,
which Congress passed and President
Clinton signed in 1996, bars same-sex couples from receiving any federal marital benefits, though activists have questioned the
Marriage can lead to DOMA challenge
Why, then, do most of the nation's gay
rights groups claim same-sex marriage is
preferable to civil unions?
Wolfson and attorneys with Lambda
Legal Defense & Education Fund, a gay litigation group, .say legalizing gay marriage
in Massachusetts and other states will open
the way for legal challenges to the Defense
of Marriage Act, known as DOMA.
Experts in constitutional law have said
it remains unclear whether a section of the
U.S. Constitution known as the full faith
and credit clause requires states to legally
honor marriages issued in other states.
Most legal observers say the question will
be tested in the courts, with the U.S.
Supreme Court making the final decision.
But without legalizing same-sex marriage in one or more states, this issue could
never be tested and the possibility of
obtaining full federal marriage benefits and
rights for gay couples could never be
achieved without passage of legislation,
David Buckel, an attorney with Lambda
Legal, said legalizing same-sex marriage in
states would have benefits that go beyond
just the legal issues.
"The key issue is gay people, not the government, should make the choice between
civil unions or marriage," Buckel said. "As
long as the government takes the choice
away from gay people, we are second-class
citizens. The official message from our
rulers is that we are unworthy"
Added Buckel, "Our position is that any
choice available to a different-sex couple
should be available to a same-sex couple. We
would be making a terrible mistake to allow
the government to take marriage off that
list of choices."
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first
open lesbian to serve in Congress, called
2003 "a tremendous year in the debate and
discussion on civil marriage for gays."
Baldwin said she agrees with gay rights
leaders that marriage is far preferable to
civil unions for gay men and lesbians, and
she supports efforts by gays in
Massachusetts and other states to secure
marriage equality in the courts. But she
said she and other gay rights advocates in
Congress must now face a backlash against
same-sex marriage and gay civil rights in
general orchestrated by anti-gay groups.
"I think the struggle for full civil marriage rights is a very important one,"
Baldwin said. "That having been said, I in no
way discourage efforts to protect our families in the meantime" through civil unions
or domestic partner laws, Baldwin said.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), another
openly gay member of Congress, said he
also supports legalization of same-sex marriage and predicts the Massachusetts high
court will decree legalized same-sex marriage next May Like other observers, Frank
said he believes the Massachusetts legislature will choose not to act, with conservative lawmakers working instead for a voter
referendum to amend the state Constitution
to ban same-sex marriage.
Frank said that by 2006, voters will view
the issue as non-threatening and most likely will vote against a referendum to repeal
marriage rights for gays.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), the third openly gay member of Congress, has no official
position on same-sex marriage or civil
unions, according to his press secretary.
David Buckel, a gay rights attorney for Lambda
Legal Defense, said gay activists need to keep
demanding that the government treats all of its
citizens equally. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)
Neena Moorjani. Moorjani said Kolbe
opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and joined Frank
and Baldwin in issuing a joint letter to all
House members urging opposition to such
an amendment. Kolbe did, however, vote for
DOMA, angering a number of activists and
leading the Arizona Republican to come out
in anticipation that activists would identify
him in retaliation.
Gay groups unified in
support of marriage rights
While sometimes disagreeing over
strategies and issues, all of the major
national gay civil rights groups are unified
in their support for legalizing same-sex
marriage, according to Wolfson, who said
he confers with the groups frequently
Among them are the Human Rights
Campaign, the nation's largest gay political
group; the National Gay & Lesbian Task
Force; the National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual & Transgender Organization;
Lambda Legal; the Gay & Lesbian Alliance
Against Defamation; Parents & Friends of
Lesbians & Gays; Log Cabin Republicans;
and the National Stonewall Democrats.
Log Cabin Republicans spokesperson
Mark Mead and National Stonewall
Democrats Executive Director Dave Noble
said same-sex marriage enjoys widespread
support from their member groups.
Martin Ornelas-Quintero, executive
director of LLEGO, said his group's diverse
membership appears solidly behind the concept of same-sex marriage, lining up behind
LLEGO's efforts to lobby mainline Hispanic
groups in support of equal marriage rights
for gays. Ornelas-Quintero said the National
Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of
33 Hispanic advocacy groups in the United
States, came out against a constitutional
amendment banning gay marriage following a LLEGO lobbying campaign.
Craig Howell, member and former president of the D.C. Gay & Lesbian Activists
Alliance, said GLAA also supports same-
sex marriage. Howell said GLAA is pleased
that the national groups view marriage as
far preferable to civil unions or domestic