U.S. Taking Hard Line against Same-sex Marriage

SADIE FIELDS and her band of Christian soldiers are girding for battle. The names and photos of their targets - Georgia representatives sitting on the fence about a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex weddings - have been passed around the committee room.

U.S. Taking Hard Line against Same-sex Marriage

SADIE FIELDS and her band of Christian soldiers are girding for battle. The names and photos of their targets - Georgia representatives sitting on the fence about a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex weddings - have been passed around the committee room. So have the "I Support Traditional Marriage" stickers with the restroom-door representations of a man and a woman. They've huddled in prayer to ask the Lord to open the hearts and change the minds of the opposition. All that remains before the holy forces of lobbying are unleashed on the Capitol building in downtown Atlanta is the sermon. "Opposing HOMOSEXUALITY is the loving thing to do," Fields, head of the Christian Coalition of Georgia, says in a butter-soft Southern drawl. "We don't affirm people in their sin no matter what." A big blond clutching a Bible mutters "Amen." Behind her, a woman in a star-spangled sweater nods in vigorous agreement. "There is no middle ground on this issue," says Fields. "We're talking about the deconstruction of American society. Where does it end? One man marrying two men? A woman marrying three others?"

On this Tuesday, their numbers are small - just three dozen lay members and preachers from fundamentalist churches in the heart of Georgia's Bible belt - but their impact is appreciable. All through the morning, legislators rise from their chairs and troop out to the lobby to receive the message. Every seat in the state house and senate is up for re-election this November, and polls suggest politicians who ignore the anti-gay marriage forces do so at their own peril. Nationally, two-thirds of Americans are against allowing homosexuals to tie the knot, a number that climbs even higher in the conservative South and Midwest. (In Canada, where Quebec last week became the third province to legalize gay marriage, just under 50 per cent are opposed.)

The pictures of happy same-sex couples exchanging vows in San Francisco, Portland and in small towns in New Mexico and New York state over the last few weeks seem to have changed few minds in the American heartland. Rather, the images have hardened opinions, and enraged evangelical Christians like Marion Nivens, a retired textile plant manager from Hogansville, south of Atlanta. "If we allow this to happen, then our way of life will come to an end as we know it," he says during a break from arm-twisting legislators. "If the traditional family is destroyed, then the United States, and indeed, the whole Western World is in trouble." His wife Barbara, a retired school teacher, sees a gay and lesbian conspiracy at work. "This is all about recognizing these relationships as normal and OK," she says. "It's an attempt to recruit people to their lifestyle."

The fact that Georgia, like 37 other states, already has legislation on the books prohibiting same-sex weddings is of little comfort to the Nivens and their like-minded crusaders. "Activist" judges overturn laws all the time, they say; only rewriting the constitutions - both state and federal - will safeguard the institution of marriage. It's an argument that appears to be gaining favour. Similar legislative efforts are underway in Alabama, Delaware, Minnesota, Kansas and Kentucky. All told, 35 states are now considering proposals to make it even harder, if not impossible, for gays and lesbians to win legal recognition for their partnerships. George W. Bush has made a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage one of the central planks of his re-election campaign.

More than three decades after the turmoil of the civil rights movement, America again finds itself grappling with uncomfortable questions of minority rights and majority wishes on a national scale. Legal challenges are piling up. Clergy and mayors who have defied laws and married same-sex couples face criminal charges. Politicians at all levels of government are enmeshed in the debate. Hardly on the horizon a year ago, same-sex marriage has become the nation's dominant social issue, and for many voters even more important than Iraq or the faltering economy. The backlash against gay rights is growing. Once again, who shall overcome is an open question.

THE MAGIC number in U.S. politics this year is 18. That's how many states were won by margins of six per cent or less in the razor's-edge 2000 presidential vote. The conventional wisdom is that the 2004 campaign could be just as close. In such a tight political climate, the search for advantage is relentless. So when Bush's team sat down over the last year to draw up their electoral game plan, there was another figure that kept jumping out at them - four million. That's the number of evangelical Christians that Karl Rove, the President's chief political strategist, believes voted for the Republicans in 1996, but stayed at home the last time around because they were unmoved by the party's promise of "compassionate conservatism." The White House's hardline stance on same-sex marriage is designed to bring these people back into the fold and, if strategists realize their dreams, drive a wedge between the Democrats and some of their more religious, blue-collar supporters.

"Gay marriage seems to be one of those social issues that helps cement your base support and sends people further into one camp or the other," says Rhodes Cook, a Virginia-based independent political analyst. In an election year where 83 per cent of probable voters have reportedly already made up their minds between Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, mobilizing party faithful has become hugely important. And polls suggest that opponents of same-sex unions - generally older, less educated and less affluent - are far more likely to cast their ballots than those on the other side - young, urban, busy.

Most observers agree that an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution is, at best, a long shot. Bush's proposal would require the approval of a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, as well as ratification by at least 38 states. There have only been 10 successful amendments since 1791. And despite the high and steady level of opposition to same-sex weddings, Americans appear to be less comfortable - a bare majority according to most polls - with the idea of institutionalizing discrimination in their founding documents.

State constitutions are a different matter. Legislatures in Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah and Wisconsin have agreed to submit anti-same-sex marriage amendments to voters for endorsement in upcoming elections. Gays and lesbians in the U.S. are already denied more than 1,000 rights and protections - including hospital visitation and input on medical treatment - accorded to heterosexual couples under federal law. The fear of rights advocates in places like Georgia is that the state amendments will go even further, effectively making it illegal for anyone - including private companies - to recognize homosexual relationships by extending things like health and dental benefits to same-sex partners.

Karla Drenner, the only openly gay member of the Georgia legislature, says the debate in her state is punitive, rather than preventative. "Gay marriage has never been legal here, and the law has never been challenged." What Americans are really grappling with, says Drenner, is the question of immutability: whether sexual orientation, like skin colour, is something that can't be changed. "I think people will look back at this the same way they look back at African-Americans not being allowed to use the same drinking fountains as Caucasians."

In the hometown of Martin Luther King Jr., one might expect that argument to carry more weight. If anything, however, polls suggest African-Americans are even more profoundly opposed to gay marriage than the rest of the population. While the NAACP has come out in favour, many black church leaders, like Rev. Walter Fauntroy, one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, have spoken against same-sex unions. Jesse Jackson supports equal protection under the law, but sees the comparison of the struggles as a "stretch." "Gays were never called three-fifths human in the constitution," he recently told a Harvard audience. "They did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote."

That discomfort has left people like Ron Sailor Jr. - the pastor of a large African-American church in suburban Atlanta, and a Democratic state representative - treading a fine line. He agrees with many of his parishioners that the Bible prohibits same-sex weddings, but he's working against the constitutional amendments. "It's put me in the position where I have to sensitize people to the facts of elected life. To explain to them that the Republicans are trying to exploit our religious values for political gain," he says. But if the pastor in Sailor is angry, the politician in him recognizes a canny manoeuvre. Homophobia is America's last acceptable prejudice, he says, and the White House is playing it for all it's worth. "You have to tip your hat to them," Sailor says. "It's a masterful technique."

THE MEETING starts with an announcement - anyone who doesn't want to risk having their face splashed across the local paper or on the TV news should move to the back of the bar. A few people scurry into the covering darkness. The city of Macon might have given the world the flamboyant Little Richard, and provided Tennessee Williams with the inspiration for Big Daddy, but local attitudes about homosexuality aren't always progressive. Allen Thornell, executive director of Georgia Equality, has made the hour-and-a-half trip down from Atlanta to try to enlist local gays and lesbians in the fight against the state marriage amendment. Standing under a rotating disco ball, he fields questions for close to an hour. "My kids can't even pray in school, so how can they bring an amendment to promote a religious way of looking at marriage?" asks one woman. "Why aren't we highlighting the untidy marital backgrounds of some of the politicians who are promoting this legislation?" asks another. Thornell's responses are calm and measured, warning that pointing out the hypocrisy of their opponents isn't going to be enough. When someone asks why Georgia Equality isn't following the lead of other groups and launching a court challenge, he lays his cards on the table. "Because no one thinks we'd win," says Thornell. "Why set a precedent?"

The gay marriage debate in Canada is often couched in terms of breaking down the final barriers. In many parts of the U.S., it's about keeping a tenuous toehold and hope for the future. Georgia law currently offers not a single protection for gays and lesbians - they can be discriminated against in employment, housing, you name it. "Most people in Georgia don't believe in the separation of church and state," says Thornell. His most optimistic assessment is that gays and lesbians in the state will eventually win some sort of legal status, someday.

In their pretty Arts and Crafts-style bungalow in midtown Atlanta, Kevin Roush and Michael Cox are showing a visitor their proudest possession - the certificate that proves they are officially wed, until death does them part. They flew out to San Francisco the week after Valentine's Day to tie the knot. There are pictures of the pair standing in the rain-soaked lineup that stretched around City Hall, exchanging rings before a judge in the rotunda, sealing the deal with a kiss. In each, they wear the ecstatically goofy grins of the newly wed and blissfully happy. "It was the best experience we've ever had," says Cox. "Everywhere you looked there were couples getting married - it was beautiful," adds Roush.

The furniture salesman and the architect have been a couple since the day they met, almost 21 years ago. They have matching leather armchairs in front of the television. They finish each other's sentences. Their house is crammed with photos and mementoes of a shared life. What they cannot comprehend is why millions of their fellow citizens find their relationship so offensive that they would try to change the constitution to ban it. "Whose God is it?" asks Roush. "The love I have for this man and the pledge I have given him, my God is fine with that." Cox mentions a movie he recently saw about the suffragettes, how it has inspired him to fight for his rights. "If America had waited for public opinion to get onside, women would still be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, African-Americans would still be riding in the back of the bus." The courts "will set us free," he says. But voters, at least in some states, might put the shackles back on.

BY THE NUMBERS

59 - percentage of Americans who favour amending the constitution to ban gay marriage

47 - percentage of Canadians who want Paul Martin to change laws to allow it

4,037 - number of same-sex couples wed in San Francisco between Feb. 12 and March 11

733 - number wed in British Columbia in the last six months of 2003

See also MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE.

Maclean's March 29, 2004