Hours before he was slated to give a speech in San Diego at the 19th annual International Network of Lesbian & Gay Officials (INGLO) conference, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director Patrick Guerriero engaged in a short debate with Genevieve Wood, a member of the Family Research Council, on CNN. The topic: same-sex marriage.
Wood argued that the recent Massachusetts judicial court ruling in favor of gay marriage "forced" the issue down people's throats, adding that amending the Constitution to ban gay unions was not a step toward intolerance, but rather it simply enforced a traditional institution.
Guerriero countered that if Wood wanted to preserve marriage, why didn't she work to amend the Constitution to ban infidelity or divorce? His sentiment likely passed without much fanfare in the CNN studios, but the very same comments, repeated later over dinner at the INLGO conference, met with thunderous applause. Guerriero described any proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage as an attempt to marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people from mainstream, heterosexual society.
INLGO serves as an annual meet-and-greet for openly gay and gay-friendly public officials. This year the Massachusetts court ruling-both the potential it holds and the backlash it could incite-was the conference's hot topic. So too was the appearance of Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who shrugged off 41 hours without solid sleep to address INGLO attendees. Kucinich had stayed up all night Friday debating with his colleagues in the House of Representatives the merits of the Medicare bill. After voting "nay" on the reform package at 6 a.m. Saturday, Kucinich hopped on a plane, paused in Wyoming for a campaign stop and proceeded to San Diego.
The candidate's INGLO appearance says something about the importance of the gay marriage question, which has become a major wedge issue in the race for the presidency.
Public-opinion pollster and conference presenter David Mermin explained that gay and lesbian issues "have made steady progress with some hiccups along the way." His research illustrates that those "hiccups," or backlashes, tend to be short-lived and usually appear right after a ruling or event that occurs in favor of LGBT rights, such as the one that occurred after the sodomy law in Texas was struck down.
In his panel discussion, Mermin warned that the Bush administration would likely run a campaign focusing on same-sex marriage within the context of "values." According to Mermin's research, roughly one-third of American voters are struggling with issues such as same-sex marriage-they are uncomfortable with the idea of gay marriage, but they don't want to be seen as bigoted. Adding the word "values" to the mix could be a way to sway voters to the right.
"The right uses issues of morality better than the left," said Mermin. "Framing a discussion in terms of equal-rights resonates with people, but marriage has religious connotations which leaves people who may be uncomfortable with supporting gay-marriage wondering if they are doing the right thing [by supporting it]."
The noisy debate over equal marriage rights in the United States is unique. Kyle Rae, a member of the Toronto City Council and one of the INLGO conference's international attendees, explained that because "Canada doesn't have a religious right" the debate over that country's same-sex marriage laws took place largely without loud protest from religious groups.
But despite the gains made by Canadian same-sex marriage advocates, Rae found that his input was marginalized in the discussions with his American counterparts at INLGO. "Some are open and sympathetic and some are upset that we [Canada] did it first," he said. "The attitude is that American democracy is the best, that their way to same-sex rights is the best and that the sun rises and sets out of their assholes. I'm the only [legally] married candidate here and there's no recognition of that."
Rae added that same-sex marriage advocates were going about things the wrong way. "They want a big push at the federal level through organizations like Human Rights Campaign and they won't look to see what the municipalities in, for example, Iowa are doing," he said. "The cities in Canada led the fight for same-sex benefits, then the provinces, and so the federal politicians felt that there was a groundswell of movement and that their constituents supported them."
Marriage is not simply a symbolic union that declares a couple's love and dedication to one another; it is a merging of people into a legally recognized entity, one that has access to certain rights and benefits. Human Rights Campaign literature distributed at the conference enumerated some of the ways same-sex couples are denied basic rights that heterosexual couples might take for granted. Same-sex couples, for example, pay taxes on health benefits provided to a partner; they do not qualify for spousal exemption from estate taxes; and in situations where one of the partners is ill "same-sex partners are considered strangers under the law and are often turned away at the hospital room door."
How many people are affected by these limitations? According to Gary Gates, a researcher with the Urban Institute think tank and a conference speaker, millions.
Gates has used his work in demography, funded by the Urban Institute, to illustrate how the LGBT community deals with the burden of unrecognized relationships. Using census data, Gates compiled a statistical profile of same-sex couples. Because the census does not ask individuals to list their sexual orientation-therefore leaving the LGBT population officially invisible-Gates' analysis included only those who said they live with a member of the same sex. This means that members of the LGBT population who are single, not living with their partner or who chose not to self-identify as living within a same-sex couple, were omitted from the study. Still, the results are quite astounding.
Gates' research shows that one in four gay couples are raising children, and "96 percent of all U.S. counties have at least one same-sex couple with children under 18 in the household." Gates said that in the city of San Diego, 21 percent of same-sex couples have children-a number that is about equal to the national average, but only places San Diego 50th in the top 61 metropolitan areas that fall into that category. The city with the highest percentage of same-sex couples with children is San Antonio, with 36 percent-ironically located in the home state of President Bush, who has publicly declared his belief that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman.
Gates' research also points out that 15 percent of San Diego same-sex couples are people 55 and older. "What these numbers do is help to round out public policies," he said "Because of the limitations of the census and the fact that we relied on people to self-identify as living with a same-sex partner, we are probably missing roughly three quarters of the LGBT population."
Despite limitations, what Gates' research suggests is that members of the LGBT community face the same health and welfare-aging and parenting-as their opposite-sex counterparts.
"This data begins to fill the void around talking about same-sex couples," Gates said. "It can be a tool to inform further policy research. It could inform politicians as to what their constituents look like. It could be used by marketers or for economic development." It could also lend support to those who choose to advocate for equal-marriage rights.
The gay community is not a politician's only constituency, however, and while recognizing that they form an increasingly active and effective special interest may score them some political points, it's certain to compel others to cast same-sex marriage in a negative light come election time.
That's what was on Congressman Kucinich's mind when he addressed a capacity crowd at the conference dinner, on the heels of a standing ovation. It's "not appropriate that [same-sex marriage] becomes a wedge issue in election campaigns," he said.
Kucinich, the staunchly liberal standard-bearer among the lot of Democratic presidential candidates, praised the crowd for their "courage," their "fearlessness" and their work that went beyond the LGBT community to "working for human liberation" in general. Kucinich promised that if he were elected president-a long-shot, at best-he would work toward enabling the right of same-sex marriage "not as "separate but equal' [to opposite-sex marriage], but to end the inequality that currently exists." ©