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Protecting Obama from Gay Marriage Politics 

Activists argue that now isn't the time for more gay lawsuits

Wednesday, Jun 18 2008
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AT 4:46 P.M. on Monday, an anxious Paul Waters stands on the steps of the Beverly Hills courthouse, waiting for news. Inside, his friends Robin Tyler and Diane Olson are on the verge of making history. Both the city of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles County have agreed to keep the courthouse open until 5:01 to grant Tyler and Olson a marriage license — which would make them the first same-sex couple to be legally wed in Los Angeles County. That is, if nothing goes wrong.

Ted Soqui

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click to flip through (2) TED SOQUI - Power marriage: Shane Goldsmith and Monica Granados are married outside City Hall by L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, the couple’s former boss.
  • Ted Soqui
  • Power marriage: Shane Goldsmith and Monica Granados are married outside City Hall by L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, the couple’s former boss.
 
 

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Power marriage: Shane Goldsmith and Monica Granados are married outside City Hall by L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, the couple’s former boss.

Ted Soqui

(Click to enlarge)

First couple: Diane Olson turns away from a blizzard of cameras to give a tight hug to Robin Tyler, as attorney Gloria Allred looks on.

“The Fundies have 15 minutes left,” Waters says, with a mixture of glee and apprehension.

He’s referring to efforts of religious conservative groups to get a last-second injunction from the California Supreme Court — one that would stay gay marriage until after November, when California voters will decide whether or not to enact a constitutional amendment defining marriage being between a man and a woman. Pollsters predict a close vote. And indeed, if the presence of at least a dozen “Abomination!”-shouting gay marriage protesters at the wedding is any indication, it’s going to be quite a fight.

On this day, however, it looks as if gay advocates will have their victory.

As the minutes pass in quiet tension, a voice suddenly announces over a loudspeaker, “They’ve got it!” — and the crowd of several hundred alongside Waters erupts.

Seconds later, Tyler, Olson and their lawyer, Gloria Allred, emerge triumphant from the courthouse to the tune of “Here Comes the Bride.” All three are dressed in cream-colored suits; they walk hand in hand in hand, clutching a marriage license between them. (“She’s the other woman,” Tyler would later joke of Allred.)

Gay marriage is officially legal in California.

Tyler and Olson, along with another pair, Troy Perry and Phillip De Bliek, were the first same-sex couples to sue for the right to marry in California. On Valentine’s Day in 2004, hours before San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom temporarily legalized gay marriage in his city, Tyler and Olson, Perry and De Bliek, and Allred stood on these same Beverly Hills steps and announced their intention to sue L.A. County for the right to marry.

Four and half years later, Tyler stands victorious — and to think, it might have even happened sooner. Both Tyler and Perry had considered suing as far back as 2003, but they were contacted by Democratic leaders and gay advocates and told to “wait until the time was right.”

Tyler and Perry eventually stopped listening, and now, they are both legally married to their partners.

“I sued because my union, AFTRA, would not give my partner medical insurance after I retire because we weren’t married,” Tyler says. “Our lawsuit wasn’t a reaction to Mayor Newsom marrying couples. I was fed up with the discrimination by my union.”

But in the aftermath of the California Supreme Court victory, as many gay couples across the country have become emboldened to start fighting the same issues as Tyler, a similar holding pattern is emerging in gay advocacy circles. GLAAD, Lambda Legal and several other prominent gay-rights organizations have been circulating a pamphlet called “Make Change, Not Lawsuits.”

The message in brief: No matter what you do, don’t sue to be married.

“We need to be strategic in how we proceed,” says Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal. “We’ve just fought a major battle; now is not the time for more lawsuits.”

Davidson says that to lose a legal battle now could add years to the struggle to achieve marriage equality. This begs the question: With all the momentum currently generated by the California Supreme Court’s decision, when exactly is the time to sue?

After all, the atmosphere in California didn’t seem especially propitious for victory in 2004, when the lawsuits were filed. Proposition 22, the California ballot amendment that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, had passed by an overwhelming margin four years earlier. The Supreme Court was stocked with Republican appointees, and gay marriage bans were in the process of being erected in state legislatures across the country.

Troy Perry says the phone calls he received back in 2003, discouraging him from suing in California, were “absolutely about the election” facing John Kerry. Now, the activists face yet another “classic dilemma,” says longtime Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. “The California Supreme Court decision was a tremendous victory, and the question now is how hard, how fast and how adversarial should they be in pushing from here on out. Because the last thing you want to do is provoke some incredible backlash that gets the ballot initiative passed or John McCain elected.”

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