The Truth, Mainly - 07/07/2003

Equality for gays: times are a-changing
by Leon Satterfield

It's been an alarming month for homophobes. In the past 30 days they've had to witness the following outrages:

•Episcopalians in the New Hampshire diocese elected an openly gay clergyman as their bishop. He told the delegates who'd voted for him that they should be "kind and sensitive and gentle" to those who "will not understand what you've done today."

•Wal-Mart, which employs more people than any other private enterprise in the country, decided its anti-discrimination policy applies to gay and lesbian employees.

•The Canadian cabinet voted to legalize same-sex marriages—not just for Canadians but for any Americans who take a trip north to get married.

•And on June 26, a day that will live in homophobe infamy, the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 majority that a Texas law forbidding gay sex was unconstitutional. Get this: 4 of the 6 in the majority were appointed by Republican presidents. And then get this: Newsweek reports that polls show 60 percent of Americans believe homosexual sex between consenting adults should be legal.

It was the Supreme Court decision that produced the most moral indignation. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said "the court has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda." Whatever that is. And he said the ruling threatens "state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is so alarmed that he's been talking up a proposed amendment to the U.S. constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriage. You know, the sort of thing nation-wide that Nebraska did state-wide back in 2000 when we passed LB 416, otherwise known as DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act).

To which the most elegant rejoinder was the bumper sticker that said "Our marriage doesn't need defending. Sorry about yours."

I've never quite understood the notion that same-sex marriages somehow threaten straight marriages. I'm not sure I want to understand it. Could it possibly mean that lots of closet gays are in straight marriages and had they been given the choice, they might have chosen a same-sex marriage?

For some reason, I'm reminded of H. L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism: "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

But if there are lots of people out there (DOMA passed by more than a 70-30 landslide) who feel their straight marriages are endangered by same-sex marriages, then maybe the right thing to do is to change the terminology.

Let's not call same-sex unions "marriages." Let's call them something else. How about "unlimited partnerships"? That"s got a respectably commercial sound to it, doesn't it? Who could oppose that?

I don't imagine many gays would find "unlimited partnership" any clunkier to the ear than "same-sex marriage"—which suggests an apology of sorts for being different from the other 90 percent of us. "Unlimited partnership," on the other hand, suggests going beyond something as conventional as "marriage."

Yes, you should be saying, but if we don't call their relationship a marriage of some kind, they might not be eligible for the marriage benefits straight folks get. Tax breaks, insurance benefits, spousal visitation rights—that sort of thing.

And you'd be right. Calling them unlimited partnerships instead of same-sex marriages ought to diminish the pressure to pass Defense of Marriage Acts, but it might also open the door for even more discrimination.

So what we have to do is make sure that unlimited partnerships get the same benefits that are bestowed on heterosexual marriages.

And here's a simple way for us heterosexuals to sensitize ourselves to the need for equality: just imagine we're 10 percent of the population and those in unlimited partnerships are 90 percent. And imagine that they might want to treat us as shabbily as we've treated them. How would we react?

•A landlord tells us, "Sorry, but we don't rent to heterosexual couples; it makes our other tenants nervous." We scream bloody murder.

•Our hellfire-and-brimstone preacher tells us he's sorry, but all of us in heterosexual marriages are going to hell because we're abominations in the eyes of God. And then he tells us that, if we try really hard, we can change our sexual orientation. We tell him where he can go.

•Our spouse is foreign born and not allowed to share our U.S. citizenship—with all that implies—because we're in a heterosexual marriage instead of an unlimited partnership. We get very cranky.

And so forth. You get the point. But let me say it again:

If calling them same-sex marriages is the problem, let's give them another name. But let's make sure our laws apply equally to heterosexual marriages and homosexual unlimited partnerships.

You know, in the name of equal and unalienable rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and all that Fourth of July stuff.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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