The gay marriage movement is often described as the civil rights struggle of the moment, but the origins and impact of the movement are hardly black and white.
The effort to get the amendment on the ballot was spearheaded by the Montana Family Foundation, which has ties to the national organization Focus on the Family. The amendment is expected to pass, and support for the initiative is so strong that according to Montana Family Foundation’s Executive Director Jeff Laszloffy, his group’s membership has quadrupled since the initiative campaign began in March.
The battle was begun by a successful test case in the faraway state of Hawaii. At that point the gay community was—as it still partially is—divided over the question of marriage. Still, that case, which temporarily legalized gay marriage, ignited conservatives nationwide, who have since organized a strong and effective opposition to gay marriage.
These efforts have focused on getting state constitutional amendments like CI-96 passed. Similarly worded amendments have already passed in five states, including Hawaii, and are on the November ballot in nine states, including Montana.
But as opposition to gay marriage has mounted, conservatives have also inadvertently caused many gays to put aside their personal politics about the institution of marriage in order to stand up for the equality the issue has come to represent.
When asked who initiated the current struggle over gay marriage, spokesmen both for and against unequivocally point to their opponents. According to Karl Olsen, executive director of Montana’s gay and lesbian rights organization PRIDE, George Bush and Jeff Laszloffy initiated the fight. “We are clearly responding to them; we are fighting a constitutional amendment.”
The Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 was passed in reaction to the lawsuit in Hawaii. The act allows states to ignore same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and is cited as a pivotal moment in unifying the gay community on the issue of marriage.
Jonathan Katz, executive coordinator of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University, said that the DOMA and this year’s failed Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) “engendered a rapidly building consensus that was not generated by us. We realized that to lose this fight would be deeply painful, so we coalesced around it.” He said that there is still not unified support among gay people for the idea of same-sex marriage, but there is unified support for achieving the right. “Even if marriage is not an institution that we support, when its prohibition is articulated as a right-wing oppression, we have to take up that fight.”
Robson agrees: “People within the gay community, even if they are opposed to gay marriage, or people who are progressive and wouldn’t see marriage as one of their goals, now see it as a battleground because it is being so vociferously denied to them.”
Laszloffy disagrees: “It’s the gay community that is on the offensive. All of the amendments are to stop a movement that already exists.”
Katz counters that gays would not have chosen this time, “an election year with an incumbent Republican administration, to raise the issue. The initial impetus,” he said, “was born out of the [political] right, which cynically understood gay marriage as an easy wedge issue to secure converts, raise money and put down the lesbian and gay communities. It was only once they started pushing the issue that we responded.”
Political strategists speculate that where gay-marriage initiatives are on the ballot in November, their presence will boost voter turnout among conservatives. An estimated four million Christian conservatives did not vote in the 2000 elections, and if they are drawn to the polls, it is expected that they will also vote to re-elect president Bush.
Laszloffy, who is also a Republican state representative from Laurel, admits that CI-96 is proactive, but says “We know that the issue will come to the courts in Montana, and we want to give the judges a clear message of how the people want them to respond.” The conservative community has taken on this fight with urgency and unity. In the Voter Information Packet regarding CI-96, supporters claim that rejecting the initiative would amount to society telling its children that “one gender or the other is unnecessary.”
According to a poll conducted in May 2004, 60 percent of registered Montana voters think gay marriage should be unconstitutional. Illustrating the particular vehemence of conservative activists, more than 85 percent of the calls received by Montana’s congressional staffs favored the FMA, which would have made same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The FMA was proposed in the wake of a Massachusetts court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in June 2003. By the time the FMA went to a vote in July 2004, said Sen. Conrad Burn’s Deputy Press Secretary J.P. Donovan, the senator had been “bombarded by phone calls from people who supported the amendment.”
The message coming from the other side, however, is that gay marriage is a nonissue. The Human Rights Campaign in Ohio ran a full-page ad that read: “Jobs lost in Ohio since 2001: 255,000; Gay marriages in Ohio: 0. Focus on Americans’ real priorities, Mr. President.”
Much of the progress toward achieving same-sex marriage rights, in fact, has been fueled by people outside of the gay community. Several members of the board at Montana’s PRIDE are straight, said Olsen, and “They look at gay marriage as the civil rights issue of the moment, and they want to be a part of it,” he said.
In February Gavin Newsome, mayor of San Francisco, ordered that marriage licenses be granted to same-sex couples. He, like an estimated half of PRIDE’s membership, is heterosexual. So too are the members of the Massachusetts Supreme Court who legalized gay marriage in that state, as is Montana state legislator Tom Facey, who sponsored a bill in 2003 to legalize gay marriage in Montana.
As soon as the issue of gay marriage was raised successfully in the courts, the backlash in Montana and nationwide was huge, unified and well organized. This backlash, however, was directed against a community that in large part didn’t support gay marriage, either.
Many conservative homosexuals oppose gay marriage because they want to preserve marriage as a heterosexual union. On the other side of the fence are progressives who do not support the social organization and implications of marriage.
The religious right finds unlikely allies among conservative gays who fear that gay marriage might open the door to legalized polygamy, and who hold a traditional and oftentimes religious view of marriage that would be corrupted by the inclusion of gays.
Steve Yuhas, a radio host in San Diego and a gay man in a committed homosexual relationship, has a “religious and a traditional belief” that both the function and the principle of marriage is violated when it is not between a man and a woman.
Yuhas also fears that gay marriage will open the door to polygamy.
“Once you allow gay marriage, where do you draw the line? Why not have it be between three consenting adults?” he asks.
Within the right-leaning gay community Yuhas’ message is well received: “I get e-mails every day from gays who believe that gay marriage is the wrong antidote for what they’re looking for,” he said. “Exit polling data from the Rasmussen Reports shows that 15-17 percent of self-identified gays in Missouri and in California voted for an amendment to prohibit gay marriage in those states.”
However, many conservative gays who are not in favor of same-sex marriage are now supporting it because of the tone of the opposition.
Pastor B.G. Stumberg of the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in East Helena is embroiled in a federal lawsuit surrounding his church’s sponsorship of an event endorsing CI-96. Like Yuhas, Strumberg opposes gay marriage in order to “protect marriage and to protect our civilization.” Citing the inability of gay couples to “procreate,” he calls the prospect of same-sex marriage “very destructive.” The pastor’s opposition to gay marriage goes beyond an ideology of marriage and spills into a denunciation of homosexuality in general. “We have walked away from what is right,” Stumberg said, “What has been known and labeled as wickedness and evil cannot prevail.”
This type of social condemnation makes for a rocky political alliance with gay people who also support CI-96.
Montana PRIDE’s Olsen, however, dismisses any opposition within the gay community as a difference in perspective with regards to tactics. “Not all blacks felt that gaining the right to vote was a priority at that time,” he says. Olsen does not speak for the whole gay community, though, when he characterizes the benefit of civil unions—which grant same-sex couples the legal benefits of marriage, but under a separate legal category—as a “politically expedient stepping stone” to achieving gay marriage, rather than as an alternative.
Marriage represents a normative social structure that the gay political agenda has reflexively opposed. Homosexuals who reject traditional family structures have difficulty reconciling that stance with the idea of marriage.
Progressive gays, like their conservative counterparts, also stand in opposition to gay marriage. Ruthann Robson, a law professor at City University New York and a contributing writer to OUT Magazine, has been vocal in her stand against marriage. She takes issue with the role of the state in marriage and favors the alternative of civil unions. Her views are echoed by progressives, although she says that fewer and fewer gays agree with her as they begin to side against the opposition.
For instance, Jonathan Katz, in an interview with “Talk of the Nation” host Neal Conan, said “I would never five years ago have defined myself as an advocate of marriage. In fact the very institution smacked of precisely that which I lived my life in opposition to.”
One reason that progressive gays do not support gay marriage, Robson says, “was most explicitly put by Andrew Sullivan in his article ‘The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.’” Sullivan is an advocate of gay marriage in part for the normative influences, such as encouragement of monogamy, that the marriage institution would impose on the gay community. According to Robson, this argument suggests that by allowing gays to marry, “we could tell the good ones from the bad ones.” The bad ones, Robson explains, “would be the unmarried gays, the sexually promiscuous ones.”
Robson, like other progressive gays, also opposes marriage because it is seen as compulsory for social acceptance, and because it is necessary to achieve certain benefits. “It allows the state to organize people and to control resources based on that organization,” Robson says.
This internal opposition, among both conservative and progressive gays, was much stronger before the rise of the conservative backlash against the advances made toward legalizing gay marriage.
Because of that reaction, Robson admits that it has become hard for progressive gays to remain vocal in opposition to gay marriage. “I have stayed steady in my opposition to marriage. But I don’t say that states should not legalize gay marriage, and I feel now that I must be engaged in the federal dialogue as well.”
The different levels of mobilization of proponents and opponents of gay marriage may well be chalked up to this one difference: Supporters of gay marriage believe that history is on their side; that their success is inevitable. According to Katz, “the overarching question is not if, but in what time frame.”