Is gay marriage wrong?

As a political issue, that is? One LGBT advocate says yes

click to enlarge Gay rights activists at the Capitol. - Bob Bobster/flickr.com
Bob Bobster/flickr.com
Gay rights activists at the Capitol.

I'm no dummy; I can read polls. I knew the anti-Amendment 2 forces this year had a rough campaign ahead of them.

Gay marriage, as a public issue, has always had trouble cracking the 40 percent approval mark in the U.S. A solid 55-plus percent of the public has a deeply held problem with giving the word "marriage" to the LGBT community. Many more are OK with civil unions or some kind of same-sex benefits, although still not likely a majority.

And yet gay marriage seems to be the spear's edge in LGBT human rights parity efforts, and it goes down to defeat time and time again. (Except for one victory, in Arizona, gay rights advocates have lost marriage referenda in 28 states since 1998.)

That's the way it played out in Florida: a coalition of antigay groups and religious leaders put a same-sex marriage prohibition into the Florida Constitution, by a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent.

With the clarity of hindsight, then, is it a mistake to pursue gay marriage as the centerpiece of a human rights campaign? Over the holidays, one prominent gay writer, Bob Ostertag, weighed in with a solid "yes." In Huffington Post, Ostertag (a University of California-Davis prof who describes himself as a "composer, performer, historian, instrument builder, journalist, activist, kayak instructor") wrote:

"It's just plain sad what the gay and lesbian movement has come to. November 4 was so extraordinary, so magical. The whole world seemed to come together. Except for gays and lesbians in California. We were supposed to feel crushed over Proposition 8. And now the whole scenario is gearing up to repeat itself on January 20: The whole world will celebrate the inauguration of the first black American president and the end of the George Bush insanity — the whole world except gays and lesbians who will be protesting Rick Warren's presence at the inaugural."

Ostertag continued: "How is it that queers became the odd ones out at such a momentous turning point in history? By pushing an agenda of stupid issues like gay marriage. 'Gay marriage' turns the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities upside down and paints us into a reactionary little corner of our own making."

Given the setback of Amendment 2 that is fresh in everyone's minds, it is a reasonable question to ask if the LGBT community has made a tactical or political mistake in pushing for the right to marry. So I asked a few well-known Tampa Bay gay activists and politicos to read the Ostertag piece and give me their thoughts over the holidays. I got back two very interesting responses. The first came from singer/songwriter and CL blogger Lorna Bracewell. She wrote to me:

"First of all, I think Bob Ostertag is mistaken when he intimates that gays and lesbians are not celebrating right along with the rest of the country and the world the election of the first African-American president of the United States. Just because many gays and lesbians have noted the irony that this civil rights milestone coincided with a civil rights travesty doesn't mean we don't acknowledge or appreciate the milestone."

Bracewell continued: "Second of all, I think Ostertag's argument for the exclusion of 'gay marriage' from the universe of 'real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities' is sloppy and wrongheaded. He's right that straight people who remain unmarried do not get the 'special privileges' that accompany a civil marriage. However, his suggestion that existing marriage law discriminates against these couples in the same way it discriminates against same-sex couples is absurd. If a couple of straight, unmarried 'hipsters who can't relate to religious institutions' want the 'special privileges' of civil marriage, all they have to do is stroll down to the courthouse. If same-sex couples want them, there is no remedy."

Bracewell's solution? "I'm in favor of coalition building; gays and lesbians need to reach out to fair-minded people of every sexual orientation, but we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the law currently treats us as categorically different from straight people."

Larry Biddle, a veteran of the Howard Dean presidential campaign and an online campaigning pioneer (and partner of CL Editor David Warner), weighed in with these thoughts:

"I think the issue should be separated — religious from civil. I can't think of why it's important to take on religion in almost any fight. There are still terrible consequences to people and the world due to religious contentions. It's a never-ending battle. Forget that. What I would defend, and fight for, is equal civil rights for everyone. We in the gay community tend to live the double standard of wanting folks to only believe what we believe is right. That's their argument. We use divisiveness as a self-destructive weapon. The Amendment 2 loss in the last election in Florida was mainly due to: 1. the division into two groups to run what should have been a united campaign front — that division was mostly about personality conflicts; 2. the fight wasn't about love — as it was in Massachusetts — where polls and final results showed that love was something that transcended almost all issues and divisiveness — including most religious beliefs. I believe universally people can agree that love is unique and not to be legislated."

Biddle concluded: "It's a waste of time to battle religious differences."

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