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NEWS ANALYSIS / Same-sex marriage momentum stuns both its backers and foes

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

March 5, 2004

Same-sex marriage -- considered so radical that mainstream gay rights leaders feared its emergence in an election year -- has gained a level of visibility that even its most ardent proponents did not imagine just two months ago.

Whether intentional or not, President Bush's pledge in his State of the Union address in late January to defend traditional marriage touched off a reaction that began in San Francisco and now is rippling across the country.

These marriage licenses -- whether acts of civil disobedience or interpretations of law by local officials -- are fueling countless television images that put a mainstream face on lesbian and gay couples. They are laying the groundwork for legal challenges to marriage laws across the nation.

And they are infusing gay and lesbian rights with the consciousness of a major civil rights movement.

"Gavin Newsom went from being a handsome rookie mayor to an icon on human rights, just like that," said Jim Pinkerton, a former political adviser to the president's father, President George H.W. Bush. "It does beg comparison to other spontaneous citizen movements -- the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South in the '60s, the anti-apartheid movement in the '80s, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in the late '80s. What's notable is the establishment can't really figure out what to do with it."

President Bush talks to ABC News' Diane Sawyer as they walk through the Colonnade of the White House during an interview Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2003 which will be broadcast as a special edition of Primetime on Tuesday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m., EST, on the ABC Television Network. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, White House) ERIC DRAPER

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as much as invited challenges to New York marriage laws Wednesday in an opinion on the issuing of marriage licenses by the mayor of New Paltz. Spitzer said that while New York does not authorize same-sex marriage, its marriage laws "raise important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws."

He also said New York should accept as valid such marriages from other states. That would include Massachusetts, whose high court ruled that same-sex marriages must be granted starting in mid-May.

Few expected things to move as fast as they have, or to spread so far.

Just four years ago, Vermont was embroiled in a fierce debate over whether to permit civil unions, a parallel institution short of marriage that many considered radical.

Today, Bush's position is that civil unions are acceptable if that is what a state wants.

"The fact that civil unions were considered a radical step in 2000 and they're now considered nothing more than second class-citizenship by the gay community -- and President Bush is not expressing opposition to civil unions -- shows you how dramatically the issue has changed in just a few short months," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"It's mushroomed in ways we never dreamed possible even two months ago," Foreman said. "It was Bush's calling upon Congress (last month) to amend the Constitution to forever prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriage that propelled the proponents of equal marriage rights into overdrive. We haven't seen anything like this across the board in our community since the AIDS crisis in the late '80s."

Opponents of same-sex marriage contend it was the November ruling by the Massachusetts high court that triggered the current storm.

In fact, the debate began with June's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down state sodomy laws and, for the first time, ruled that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to private sexual relationships.

Conservatives contend the judiciary will inevitably strike down traditional marriage definitions in state laws and constitutions, and eventually the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. The act defines marriages as a union of a man and a woman, preventing same-sex couples from obtaining federal benefits tied to marriage, such as Social Security payments and immigration rights. It also allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage rights from other states.

The federal act has yet to be challenged because until now same-sex marriage did not exist in the United States. Some lawyers said recent marriages in Portland, Ore., may be the first valid marriages permitting such challenges, and certainly Massachusetts marriages will.

Gay rights advocates and opponents agree it is only a matter of time before laws against same-sex marriage go the way of laws against interracial marriage, barring a constitutional amendment.

But Republican members of Congress privately concede there is little chance that amendments under consideration can pass the difficult threshold of two-thirds approval in both houses, and they are wrestling with alternatives. The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday scheduled its first hearing for March 30, but the wording of an amendment remains undecided.

"We're seeing an incredibly fast-paced civil rights movement and what I think is the last-gasp backlash of the radical right that has been in the gay- bashing industry for decades," said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the gay Log Cabin Republicans. "This is an unstoppable train."

Guerriero speculated the White House underestimated the opposition to an amendment among Republicans, many of whom say the issue should be left to the states.

"You've got your biggest, highest-profile Republicans in the country right now -- (California governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger and (former New York mayor) Rudy Giuliani -- both coming out against an amendment," Guerriero said.

David Horowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said Bush "has allowed himself to focus on the wrong target," which is a constitutional amendment defining marriage, rather than an amendment that prevents judges from making laws.

"Things are getting out of control when every mayor and public official feels free to interpret the constitution and issue rules that run pretty clearly contrary to state law," Horowitz said.

Pinkerton, however, said the White House hasn't been hurt by the debate. "An amendment doesn't have to pass. It's like abortion. The right-to-lifers have been flaying away for 30 years and never notice that they don't win. The Republicans get their energy and the right-to-lifers never get a victory. You get the energy out of a political movement by losing, not by winning."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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