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Rolling Back Gay Rights

Photo by Debra DiPaolo
California voters in 2006

likely will decide whether to eliminate any possibility of same-sex marriage in the state, and consider obliterating the six-year-old domestic-partnership program, one of the furthest reaching in the nation.

Last month, the gay-marriage panic, which reached a fever pitch in November 2004 when 11 states overwhelmingly passed state constitutional amendments curbing marriage and partnership rights for gay and lesbian couples, officially arrived in California, with Attorney General Bill Lockyer approving the initiatives for signature-gathering purposes.

Buoyed by their victories in 2004, opponents of same-sex marriage not only want to stop the nuptials, but also remove rights currently in place for same-sex couples and unmarried opposite-sex couples that have been approved by the legislature and supported in state courts.

Backers of the same-sex marriage initiative are expected to secure the nearly 600,000 signatures in time for the June 2006 ballot, and are suing over Lockyer’s decision to rename the measure, from “Voter’s Right to Protect Marriage Initiative” to “Marriage. Elimination of Domestic Rights,” which his office argues more accurately reflects its purpose.

Two other measures curbing same-sex partner rights proposed by a group that includes Gail Knight, the widow of state Senator Pete Knight, also will be circulated for signatures. The group, ProtectMarriage.com, has broken up their marriage and domestic-partner bans into two measures. Last year, Knight’s son was one of those married in the same-sex wedding frenzy in San Francisco.

No matter how you slice them, the three initiatives are bad news for unmarried couples in California, said R. Bradley Sears, executive director of UCLA’s Charles R. Williams Project, a sexual orientation law and public policy institute.

“The way these things are worded, it’s open to interpretation that any benefit or right attached to marriage can’t be attached to unmarried couples, same sex or different sex,” he explained. “The most reasonable interpretation is they all repeal AB 205.”

Assembly Bill 205, which went into effect this year, expanded California’s domestic-partnership program to include virtually all of the state’s benefits and responsibilities that come with legal marriage to registered same-sex partners and straight couples over the age of 62. While some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists deride the program as a “separate but equal” arrangement, AB 205 has been held up as a national model to prove partnership rights don’t come about solely by decree of activist judges and pose no threat to straight married couples.

Supporters of the amendments point to a decision made this week by the state Supreme Court as a reason why voters need to vote yes next June. On August 1 the court ruled a San Diego country club had to provide the domestic partner of a lesbian member the same spousal club privileges offered to married couples. The court majority said they made their decision based on AB 205.

“California is a target,” said Seth Kilbourn, the vice president of the Marriage Project at the Washington, D.C.–based Human Rights Campaign. “It is an opportunity for them to roll back the clock and take away rights that already exist.”

One particular area of concern when it comes to rolling back rights in the state is the area of second-parent adoptions, which Sears described as “a creature of court interpretation” until AB 205 codified the right of gay and lesbian couples to share the adoption of their children. He believes the amendments could repeal these adoptions, putting tens of thousands of children in legal limbo.

LGBT rights activists aren’t taking all this sitting down. The group Equality for All has been in existence for a year, identifying voters who support same-sex marriage and partnership rights, while building coalitions with other progressive groups from the United Farm Workers to gay-affirming churches. The message to voters will be that these amendments threaten rights same-sex couples already have, according to Sid Voorakkara, interim campaign manager for Equality for All.

“There is a very big difference here,” he said, explaining that voters in the 11 states that passed amendments last year banned rights that didn’t yet exist. “We will discuss how out of step these measures are with Californians.”

Lines for and against the amendments will not be drawn through party affiliation, said veteran California political consultant Allan Hoffenblum.

“This is not ‘D’ versus ‘R,’” he said. “It follows mostly along religion.”

The amendments will be won or lost based on these distinctions, Hoffenblum argued.

“When it comes to gay marriage, they oppose, but when it comes to gay rights, they are much more apt to take a more libertarian view on the issue,” he said of California voters, noting that 2000’s Proposition 22, which banned California from recognizing same-sex unions from other states, easily passed, while the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays from teaching in public schools, failed by more than a million votes after former Gov. Ronald Reagan came out against the proposal as un-American.

“Voters are unlikely to vote against the rights of any groups,” he added.

The big question in terms of endorsement or opposition will be Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in the past has stated a defense of gay rights but an apprehension for full marriage equality.

“He’s probably on the same page as most Californians,” Hoffenblum said.

Jeff Bassiri, director of Log Cabin Republicans California, the state’s largest gay Republican group, and a partner in Equality for All, is optimistic the Governator will join his side.

“I expect him to oppose these initiatives,” he said. “When he will do that, I don’t know.”

Bassiri is working overtime to keep his party from endorsing all three amendments, but, like Voorakkara, believes the fight is going to be won on the ground through coalition building.

“This initiative is going to be won in the middle,” Bassiri said. “We’re going to be reaching the decline to state and supportive Republican voters.”

The fight won’t be cheap. Kilbourn estimates opponents to the amendments will have to raise anywhere from $12 million to $16 million to wage a successful campaign. Kilbourn said he is optimistic about next June but also knows what’s coming in terms of national exposure, the tenacity of what he calls the “crusaders” on the other side of the issue, and the desire by social conservative forces to roll back LGBT rights in the bluest of the blue states.

“California has a long tradition of rejecting this kind of divisiveness,” he said, “but let’s be clear, this is a steep uphill battle.”

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