"Acceptance of gays is now widespread"

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It Was a Surprisingly Quick Engagement
Acceptance of gays is now widespread — but same-sex marriage could be the biggest battle.
By Shawn Hubler , Times Staff Writer

August 31, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO — Zeke Rubin-Moore is 3. He lives with a dog, four zebra finches and two fathers in a remodeled Italian grocery overlooking the Castro, this city's gay neighborhood. Lately, his adoptive parents keep talking hypothetically about marriage, a thing they never thought would matter. Now — suddenly, somehow — it does.

Jean McGuire is 83. She lives over the hill from little Zeke's house. Ten years ago, she lost her grown son to AIDS. Though the experience changed her mind on some gay rights, she can't condone homosexual marriage.

"I'm more tolerant now than I used to be, and I think they should have benefits and all that," she said recently, walking to morning Mass at St. Cecilia parish. "But marriage shouldn't apply to same-sex. It isn't marriage if you put it that way."

As those sentiments imply, a storm is gathering over the latest round of victories for gays who seek full acceptance and participation in society. First the Canadian government planned on joining the short list of nations with legalized gay marriage. Then the U.S. Supreme court struck down laws that outlawed gay sex. Then Episcopalians elected an openly gay bishop in the face of calls for a schism.

Now, as state courts take up legalization of same-sex civil marriage, opponents are reviving a proposed constitutional amendment to preempt that — and anything like that — from happening.

For many social conservatives, the coming battle is about halting a momentum that has been building for a generation. Although the most recent polls have shown some slippage, tolerance for lesbians and gays in the United States has not only risen over the long term but accelerated in recent decades. Even support for same-sex marriage — falling since the Supreme Court ruling in June — is slightly higher than in the mid-1990s.

"The short-term developments this summer are just a little squiggle in a much bigger picture," said William Rubenstein, a law professor at UCLA and the faculty chairman of the Williams Project, a think tank on sexual orientation law.

"The larger sweep of events points to gradual increased acceptance of same-sex couples. The point at which same-sex marriage is recognized in all 50 states is down the line probably," he said. "I do imagine it will happen in my lifetime."

That cannot be allowed, said Glenn Stanton, a senior analyst at Focus on the Family, an evangelical ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"If we say the two forms [of marriage] are equal, we are really saying to children that they don't need both a mother and a father," he said.

Gary Bauer of the lobbying group American Values put it another way: "I think it's fair to say that if the other side wins the debate over the definition of marriage, traditionalists would have to pretty much admit that the culture war is over, and our side lost."

When the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, the majority reasoned that gays deserved the same privacy and dignity in their homes as heterosexual couples and described same-sex relationships as a constitutionally protected "personal bond."

The next step, advocates on both sides say, is to test whether that equal protection extends to the bond of same-sex civil unions. A pending court challenge in Massachusetts is expected to be appealed to the high court as soon as it is handed down.

A Gallup Poll done after the Supreme Court ruling showed approval of same-sex civil unions down to 40% from 49% a month before. A Washington Post poll this month on the identical question showed still more slippage, to 37% support, amid widespread publicity over the ruling's implications. In a nationwide poll done by Gallup for CNN and USA Today, 50% of Americans favored amending the Constitution to restrict marriage to a woman and a man.

The Federal Marriage Amendment, which died with no action in the last Congress, was reintroduced this summer with 75 House co-sponsors. Senate hearings are scheduled to begin in September.

Bauer and Stanton say they could get an amendment passed in six months if their constituencies — and, more important, the 30% or so of swing voters who don't think much about gay rights — were sufficiently outraged.

"It'd be real simple to put 15,000 people on the lawn of a state Capitol demanding that marriage be between a man and a woman," Bauer said. "Not many state legislatures will want to play games with that."

But constitutional amendments are tough to pass, requiring the approval of two-thirds of Congress and ratification of three-quarters of the states. Moreover, some say, a constitutional solution would impinge on states' rights. President Bush, while denouncing gay marriage, has not specifically endorsed the proposed amendment.

In California, voters in 2000 passed a proposition that defined marriage as applying only to a man and a woman. But on Thursday the state Senate passed a measure that would give registered domestic partners many of the same rights and responsibilities as married couples.

In homes such as that of Stephen Moore and Scott Rubin, the debate has stirred old questions. Moore, 43, is a designer and real estate agent raised a Baptist in North Carolina. Rubin, 40, is a consultant and writer raised Jewish in suburban St. Louis. Together for eight years, registered as domestic partners, they adopted Zeke as an infant. At the time, they considered a commitment ceremony but decided it would cost "$35,000 for $5,000 worth of wedding china," Rubin joked.

Lately, however, it has come up again.

"I mean, there's nothing about the institution that I find attractive except what it could offer our son," Moore said on a recent morning, sitting at a coffee table in the family's home. "If it did happen for us, I'd be happy to call it something else. Civil union is fine."

"Really?" Rubin shot back. "Why ghettoize it? What if whites could get married but blacks had to have 'civil unions?' "

Zeke toddled from Moore, whom he calls "Daddy," to Rubin, whom he calls "Papa." His blue overalls matched his plaid shirt; his little brown sandals matched Rubin's. His yellow dog, Luke, snored next to a grand piano.

"I just don't think it's realistic to think I'll ever have that kind of universal acceptance as a gay person," Moore said, "so why ..."

"Oh, I'm not in agreement," Rubin replied.

In the city's more conservative Sunset District, the sentiment at St. Cecilia's was similarly bathed in emotion. "It's against the laws of nature," said Margaret Walsh, 92, clutching her purse at the fog-shrouded church door. "It's against the laws of God."

But Donna Nathanson, 43 — sister of a priest, youngest of 14 in a Roman Catholic family — wondered whether it was so wrong "for two people who love one another."

"Yes, scripturally marriage should be between a man and a woman. But legally? I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, and I can't condemn them. God's love is unconditional. It's not for me to judge."

Then there was McGuire, walking to Mass with her friend Shirley Terry, 79. She knew when her son was a teenager that he was gay.

"I was disappointed."

"Well, and you were concerned with how he was going to face life, I remember," Terry said.

"I was. Of course, now I feel differently," McGuire said. "But those were different times."

More different than most Americans appreciate, according to researchers. "The 30- to 40-year trend on this issue is astonishing," said Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe.

"It used to be that if you were gay, you were literally subject to blackmail," said Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and the American Public Life. "It was something no one mentioned in polite company."

Today, 56% of Americans not only have a homosexual friend, relative or co-worker, but have discussed their sexual orientation with them, according to a recent Gallup Poll.

Roughly 9 out of 10 Americans back equal rights for gays and lesbians in the workplace, according to Gallup, which found 10- to 20-point increases in approval for gay and lesbian workers during the last decade on some job-related questions. A third of Americans say they feel more accepting of gays and lesbians than in prior years, while only 8% feel less so.

According to a Field Poll released Friday, 42% of Californians think gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry, the highest share since the organization began asking the question 26 years ago.

Pollsters even report an ebb in the "ick factor" — the feeling that same-sex sexuality is deviant, held even by some who support gay rights. Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, said the belief that gay and lesbian sex is "wrong" plummeted some 21 points to 56% among Americans from 1991 to 2002.

Such changes, UCLA's Rubenstein and others point out, have altered the landscape of society. As recently as the 1960s, most newspapers refused to even print the word "homosexual," let alone address the topic. Now, scores of metropolitan dailies publish commitment ceremonies in the wedding pages.

Fortune 500 companies extend benefits to domestic partners. Wal-Mart, one of America's largest employers, recently added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy for employees.

Vice President Dick Cheney, a conservative Republican, has a lesbian daughter. So does Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a liberal Democrat. Gay and lesbian teens are out in record numbers and at a younger age than ever — about 15 on average compared with 20 to 21 in the mid-1970s, said Ritch Savin-Williams, a Cornell University psychology professor surveying 30 years of research.

Sophia Lanza-Weil, 18, describes herself as half of "the token lesbian couple" at her Portland, Ore., high school. Last spring, she and her girlfriend went to the prom together.

William T. Harris, a high school principal in the tiny coal town of Rainelle, W.Va., says that in the last three years three students have come out at his high school, which has an enrollment of 260. They're the first openly gay students in his 37 years as a rural educator.

"The one we have now is the first boy to be open about it, and to my knowledge, he's not harassed," Harris said.

There are lesbian doctors on NBC's "ER" and a mixed-race gay couple on HBO's "Six Feet Under." Gay and lesbian sex and parenthood are portrayed on Showtime's "Queer as Folk." "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" on Bravo has made over Jay Leno. This coming season, ABC will premiere a show featuring a pair of gay fathers, and Showtime will offer a show about lesbians in Los Angeles. The third-most-watched sitcom on TV, according to Nielsen Media Research, is "Will & Grace," featuring a gay man and heterosexual woman as best friends.

The shift has not been limited to the heterosexual side of the culture. Gay America has become straighter and vice versa (to the discomfort of some in both groups). The marketing niche of the moment is the "metrosexual" — straight guys willing to pay for high-end clothes and grooming products. The gay fetish of the moment is the "bear" — hirsute homosexuals who look, for lack of a better description, like cuddly straight guys. In the Castro, so many families have sprouted that its largest drugstore this summer opened its first-ever baby supply section; the local novelty store — colloquially known as the "gay Home Depot" — stocks tub toys and Tooth Fairy pillows.

Not everyone considers this progress.

"The gay rights lobby has a very effective PR machine," said Focus on the Family's Stanton, who says that in portraying their relationships as little different from straight people's, gays and lesbians "have succeeded in normalizing a very radical idea."

"I want to vomit," L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, which monitors TV content, wrote of Bravo's smash "Queer Eye" in his weekly column last month. "Ever seen a show more dedicated to a 'straight-bashing' proposition?"

Meanwhile, gays such as Los Angeles author John Rechy fear that valuable distinctions are being lost as gays and lesbians blend into the mainstream. "There's a lot of heterosexual imitation," he said, noting the number of gay couples who "date" and lesbian couples who pledge their commitment in wedding dresses.

"There is a misconception about what is acceptance and what is erasure, and I think a lot of this is making us imitators of those who shunned us," Rechy said.

Gilbert Herdt, an anthropologist and director of the National Sexuality Resource Center at San Francisco State University, says that "what's happening is in some ways not unlike what happened in the early 20th century with the Irish and Italians and Eastern Europeans." Discrimination, he noted, was followed by assimilation and acceptance as outsiders took jobs, raised families and went mainstream.

But Herdt adds that the shift in attitudes during the last decade "has been equivalent to changes in public opinion that usually take a generation."

Why so much of it has occurred since the early 1990s isn't clear, he said. Political advocacy is one explanation. So is the sheer numbers of people coming out and living openly gay lives. So is media exposure and the "don't ask, don't tell" debate over gays in the military, which, while it ended many military careers, also opened public discourse.

The 1990s also were a time when lesbians and gays in large numbers began bearing and adopting children. Witeck-Combs Communications in Washington, which helps corporations market to homosexual consumers, estimates from existing surveys that there are more than 2 million gay households with more than 3 million children in the U.S.

But the big factor, researchers say, has been time. As a generation familiar with gays and lesbians has replaced its grandparents, attitudes have adjusted. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center said that at the rate the older demographic is being replaced with the young one, mainstream acceptance of same-sex relationships could become the norm within the next four to six years.

So how does marriage fit in? Not comfortably — at least not yet, political scientist Wolfe said.

"Americans make a pretty sharp distinction between things in private and things in public, and right now the bottom line is that sexuality is nobody's business, but marriage is public."

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