Will gay marriage doom the Democrats?

I don't think so, but either way, there's no turning back on full equality for everyone.

By Joan Walsh
May 16, 2008 5:05PM (UTC)
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The day the California Supreme Court chose to strike down the state's ban on gay marriage just happened to be my daughter's last day of high school classes; she graduates next week. Forgive me a little nostalgia, even sentimentality: Almost four years ago, when she was just a freshman, I wrote about her showing up to school still wearing her "Kerry-Edwards" button the day after the election, and being crushed to hear teachers and classmates say that Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to legalize gay marriage doomed the Democrats that year. (I was hearing the same thing from some people at Salon.) "How can people who support marriage oppose gay marriage?" she asked me.

Four years later, just as she's leaving high school, the state Supreme Court says Newsom, and my daughter, were right. The language of the decision is stunningly, movingly clear: "Whether or not the name 'marriage,' in the abstract, is considered a core element of the state constitutional right to marry, one of the core elements of this fundamental right is the right of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other officially recognized family relationships. The current statutes -- by drawing a distinction between the name assigned to the family relationship available to opposite-sex couples and the name assigned to the family relationship available to same-sex couples, and by reserving the historic and highly respected designation of marriage exclusively to opposite-sex couples while offering same-sex couples only the new and unfamiliar designation of domestic partnership -- pose a serious risk of denying the official family relationship of same-sex couples the equal dignity and respect that is a core element of the constitutional right to marry."


I particularly liked this, just two weeks after the death of gay-marriage-supporting Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, which led to the Supreme Court striking down Virginia's ban on interracial marriage: "As observed... at oral argument, this court's conclusion in [a previous case] that the statutory provision barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional undoubtedly would have been the same even if alternative nomenclature, such as "transracial union," had been made available to interracial couples..."

Right on cue, some people are saying this gay marriage decision will doom the Democrats again, and I had two quick reactions: I honestly don't think so, and if it does, that's just the way it is. Six of seven Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican governors, and three of them joined the 4-3 ruling (written by Republican Ronald George, who was appointed to the municipal bench by Ronald Reagan in 1972) that said, in fairly conservative language, that marriage is too important to society to exclude gay Californians. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he'll uphold the ruling and will fight an effort to amend the state's constitution to overturn the ruling. Let John McCain try to ride this issue to a victory in California. I don't see it.

As I've written before, I was once a cowardly civil unions supporter; I thought gay marriage was deadly for Democrats. But taking that position was like living in a dark, cramped house with low ceilings. Watching the explosion of love and jubilation -- and weddings, thousands of weddings -- that greeted Newsom's legalizing gay marriage in 2003 here in San Francisco was like walking out into bright sunlight. You just can't go back and live in politically and morally cramped quarters anymore.


That's happened to so many Americans already: Last year I highlighted San Diego Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders, who had promised to veto a City Council resolution supporting efforts to overturn California's ban on gay marriage, but who changed his mind. He credited his daughter Lisa and gay staff members for his change of mind, and heart. "In the end, I could not look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships -- their very lives -- were any less meaningful than the marriage that I share with my wife, Rana," Sanders said. The California Supreme Court caught up to Jerry Sanders.

I'd have liked to see Jerry Sanders-style courage from the Democratic nominees, but both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama issued shockingly cautious statements today. With so little to lose, Clinton could afford to be bolder, but her campaign said only: "Hillary Clinton believes that gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships should have the same rights and responsibilities as all Americans and believes that civil unions are the best way to achieve this goal. As President, Hillary Clinton will work to ensure that same sex couples have access to these rights and responsibilities at the federal level. She has said and continues to believe that the issue of marriage should be left to the states."

Obama was equally cautious, even though, as Alex Koppelman already noted, the ruling pretty much explicitly shattered his oft-stated assertion that the difference between "civil unions" and marriage is largely a question of "semantics." As he said at last year's Human Rights Campaign debate, "My view is that we should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word 'marriage,' which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples....[A]s I've proposed it, [civil unions] wouldn't be a lesser thing, from my perspective." The California Supreme Court said today that's not possible; the Obama campaign said this in response: "Barack Obama has always believed that same-sex couples should enjoy equal rights under the law, and he will continue to fight for civil unions as President. He respects the decision of the California Supreme Court, and continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage." When Koppelman asked the campaign to comment on the contradiction between Obama's view and the court's ruling, a spokesman said: "[Obama] continues to believe that states should make their own decisions when it comes to the issue of marriage."


I'm proud to live in San Francisco today. I'm proud of Mayor Newsom, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who led the smart, sober legal crusade to get the court to uphold Newsom's decision (here's a great, timely story on Herrera's work). And I'm proud of my daughter and her generation, who see this issue clearly – and the older generation that is belatedly catching up.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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