By Robert McCartney
Thursday, October 29, 2009
As I listened to opponents of same-sex marriage testify at two public hearings Monday in the District, I waited for a persuasive argument about how society would suffer by letting two men or two women say "I do." I didn't hear one.
Instead, I heard a lot of flawed appeals saying that a citywide ballot on the issue is necessary to protect people's voting rights, plus some incendiary rhetoric about the purported risks to children and families of "redefining" marriage.
The right to vote is not the issue here, because not every measure is automatically eligible to become a ballot initiative. Moreover, the public elected the D.C. Council members and mayor who are preparing to pass the legislation that would allow same-sex marriage in the city.
As for the arguments against same-sex marriage posed at the hearings, they ranged from the unsupported (gay parents can't raise children) to the laughable (animals aren't gay, so people shouldn't be).
The testimony highlighted the extent to which the opponents, although sincere, are committed to a dreary cause: intolerance. Their underlying message is that the government shouldn't permit same-sex marriage, because it would serve as a public affirmation that homosexuality is acceptable.
Although many opponents make a point of saying that they and God love homosexuals as people, they make it clear that they think same-sex love is immoral and should not be officially condoned. Many also insist, against extensive evidence, that any gay person could decide to be straight.
"Once you became a homosexual, you gave up your rights," Leroy Swailes told the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. He is the founder of Tears for Children, whose Web site says it's a Maryland nonprofit group that opposes gay activists on children's issues. He wore a T-shirt saying "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender morals are worse than animals."
Janet Boynes, who testified that she was a lesbian for 14 years before repenting and founding a ministry to convert others to heterosexuality, said, "They chose to go into it, and they have to decide they want to go out."
The intolerance at the core of the opponents' message -- and gay groups' success in focusing the public's attention on it -- helps explain why same-sex marriage has advanced as much as it has. Six states allow it, compared with none before 2004. The District is going to join them, unless the courts or Congress intervene. The D.C. Council looks set to pass the bill by December, and the mayor has said he'll sign it.
The nation remains sharply divided on the issue, however, and it seems likely that the Washington region is going to be a fault line. A change in the District could encourage liberal Maryland to follow suit, but Virginia shows no sign of repealing a 2006 state constitutional amendment defining marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.
The hearings Monday, first at the election board and later at the D.C. Council, displayed the two sides' strategies. At the council hearing, supporters delivered personal accounts illustrating what they see as advantages that marriage would offer gays.
Sultan Shakir of the District, a regional field director with the Human Rights Campaign, dismissed the idea that domestic partnership is an adequate substitute for full marriage rights. "When I get down on one knee before the person I love, I don't want to follow up with, do they want to 'domestic partner' me," he said.
Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette (D), who was Virginia's first openly gay elected official, said: "My sexual orientation is not a choice; it was a discovery. And if it's not a choice, how can one make a moral judgment about it?"
Opponents emphasized that they want to put the issue before voters in a ballot initiative. "Let the people vote!" was a recurring cry.
That seems reasonable, except that the District's Human Rights Act forbids initiatives or referendums that would effectively authorize discrimination -- such as denying gays the benefit of marriage. The election board has ruled once that a similar vote would discriminate against gays, and there's little reason to think it will change its mind.
"The District of Columbia is a republic. It is not a direct democracy," in which every issue is subject to a popular vote, testified Mark H. Levine, an attorney for the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which advocates for gay rights issues.
The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, the District's first delegate to Congress, was probably the most prestigious person who testified against same-sex marriage. He spoke at the election board hearing about what he sees as the importance of allowing a vote; afterward I asked him about the substance of the issue.
Fauntroy said that same-sex marriage threatens children. "Every child needs to be bonded to a man and a woman," he said. That ignores research showing that same-sex couples do a perfectly good job of raising children. Also, same-sex couples can already adopt in the District.
Fauntroy also said the "survival of the species" is at stake. "I have some brilliant friends who are gay, and it bothers me that they're not going to pass those genes on," he said.
I've got news for Fauntroy. His friends are more likely to pass on their genes, such as by artificial insemination, if they are permitted to marry. He and the other opponents should get out of the way and let them do so.
I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.