Thursday, October 16, 2008
Surrounded by the bright decor of rainbows and the pounding rhythm of drums, Sandy Hamm and Adrianne Jonson held their banner high: First Married Couple Monterey County. As Marshals of the Salinas Valley Pride Parade, they made their way down Main Street with spectators cheering them on… until they reached the second block.
There, a man wearing a tuxedo and a woman in full white wedding garb stood on cinder block-like ornaments atop a faux wedding cake. Next to them, around 30 protestors held signs reading: “Praise God for Mothers and Fathers” and “Let’s not redefine marriage.”
Jonson and Hamm did the first thing that came to mind. They turned to the homophobic protesters, their banner hanging before them. Looking directly at them, the couple said in unison: “It’s OK. We love you anyway.”
The debate on Proposition 8, which would ban gay marriage in California in an attempt to overturn the state Supreme Court ruling upholding its legality, is the latest salvo in the values wars.
This time, though, may be different. California may be on the verge of accepting that gay and lesbian people should have the same rights as everyone else.
“We as a society are coming to a point when we have to ask ourselves if we are a country that extends basic rights to everyone or a country that excludes certain groups from equality,” says attorney and constitutional law professor Michelle Welsh, who has been in the battle for decades. “These books are the California Constitution,” she adds, gesturing to a set of volumes on the bookshelves of her Pacific Grove office.
This document is at the core of the Prop. 8 debate: The initiative would not only eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry, it would amend the state constitution through language providing “that only marriage between a man and a woman be recognized in California.’’
“I’ve seen so many changes in my lifetime,” Welsh adds. “Up until the ‘consenting adult’ statute, homosexuality itself was illegal in California.” In 1976, California overturned its sodomy laws, which had been used to criminalize thousands of gay men.
Two years later, Welsh was among those who successfully defeated the Briggs Initiative, sponsored by a right-wing Southern California legislator, which would have made it illegal for schools to hire gay and lesbian teachers.
In 2008, history has come full circle; Welsh is once again fighting another anti-gay measure. If the current mood continues– an Aug. 27 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 54 percent of registered voters oppose a constitutional ban on gay marriage while 40 percent support it– she will win again.
Down the street from Welsh’s office, Adrianne Jonson is opening the doors of Artisana Gallery, a local art cooperative. In the cozy front room, the scent of Nag Champa incense wafts past Ganesha statues, Celtic crosses and indigenous clay pottery. Across town at Peet’s in Monterey, Jonson’s spouse, Sandy Hamm, serves morning coffee.
Hamm and Jonson met a dozen years ago in the Bay Area, and loved visiting the Central Coast. When Sandy heard that Peet’s was opening a store in Monterey, she called her supervisor immediately to say: “I want that store.” Making a seemingly backward exodus from the haven of gay to the haven of gray, the pair have gained iconic stature locally as the first same-sex couple to wed in Monterey County.
When post-wedding photos of the couple outside the County Clerk’s office ran in local papers, Hamm was amazed at the positive response.
“One customer came in and told me that there was a time in his life when he would have thought that my marriage was inappropriate, but that had changed,” she says. “He congratulated us and wished us happiness.”
Away from the public eye, marriage has meant more to the couple than they’d imagined, Jonson adds. “It has deepened our commitment in a much different way than just calling someone your life partner. Marriage makes people more serious about their commitments to one another.”
Kerre Dubinsky and AnnaLisa Wood bustle about their Carmel wine shop, Southern Latitudes. Customers come and go, greeted by the couple’s beagle, Max. The response to their wedding, at Monastery Beach on July 26 was also overwhelmingly positive.
“Both of us thought that marriage wouldn’t be that different because we’ve been together for 12 years,” Wood says. “But it is different. We aren’t just a couple who share a life anymore. We are married.”
In Pacific Grove, Will Griffin, 23, starts his day at Wells Fargo. In a white button-down shirt and a tie, Griffin could be just another bank employee. But as a gay African-American in a relationship with a white man, the Prop. 8 debate holds special meaning for him.
Griffin also volunteers with the Pacific Grove DARE program, teaching dance classes to middle-school youths. He was elated when he heard about the state court’s decision upholding the right to gay marriage, but expressed some trepidation about the future.
“I was so excited when I first heard,” he says, “but two seconds later, I realized that there would probably be a vote on this issue, like before.”
If Prop. 8 passes, gay couples in the county– the approximately 85 gay and lesbian couples who have been issued marriage licenses here, according to the County Clerk’s office– will pay the price.
Throughout the ’90s, gays and lesbians enjoyed greater acceptance and visibility throughout American culture. Ellen DeGeneres shattered the taboo of gay characters on TV sitcoms in 1997, opening the door for TV programs like Will and Grace.
But such pop-culture advances notwithstanding, in 2000, Proposition 22 became the proverbial two steps back for gay rights activists. The initiative read, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Its passage officially barred gays from marrying.
But the new millennium became a battle ground in the same-sex marriage values debate.
In his 2004 State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush outlined his support of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make same-sex marriage illegal. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who attended the address, was outraged. Newsom called his former chief of staff, Steve Kawa, a gay man with a long-term partner and two children, to tell him enough was enough. Newsom had decided to take action.
In February 2004, Newsom openly defied Prop. 22 by unilaterally declaring that gay marriages would be allowed in San Francisco. The first same-sex marriage license was issued to Del Martin, 83, and Phyllis Lyon, 80, a lesbian couple active in the gay rights movement who had waited 50 years for the moment.
Over Valentine’s Day weekend, hundreds of gay couples flocked to San Francisco to wed.
But the euphoria was short-lived: the marriages were swiftly overturned by decisions holding that the city acting alone could not overturn Prop. 22.
In April 2005, a San Francisco Superior Court judge concluded that California’s exclusion of same-sex couples violated the state constitution. But the ruling was overturned shortly thereafter by the Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision, the court said the state’s desire to “carry out the expressed wishes of a majority” was grounds to uphold the marriage ban.
Most recently, the California Supreme Court was once again asked to end the seemingly endless back-and-forth by reviewing whether the ban on same-sex marriage was constitutional.
On May 15, it announced its historic decision: “An individual’s sexual orientation– like a person’s race or gender– does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold rights.”
The wording invites comparison with California’s landmark 1948 decision allowing interracial marriage.
Griffin sees the comparison between the two decisions and hopes that society will begin to reflect the tolerance that the Supreme Court has mandated. “The racial issue has never come up for me individually,” he says. “That’s how I hope gay marriage will be a generation from now– an afterthought.”
But the battle is far from over. As California goes, so goes the nation– an idea that strikes fear in some quarters. The Yes on 8 campaign has raised at least $25.4 million so far, much of it from homophobic groups like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based organization that advocates reparative therapy (gay conversion camp).
The No on 8 campaign has raised more than $15.8 million. These numbers represent more than the combined total in 24 states where similar measures have gone before voters since 2004.
“All eyes are on California,” acknowledges Jennifer Kerns, spokeswoman for the Yes on 8 campaign.
From her San Francisco office, Dale Kelly Bankhead, campaign manager for “Equality for All,’’ which is fighting to defeat Prop. 8, starts work at 6am every morning, answering hundreds of e-mails and spending countless hours on the phone each day. Her commitment to defeating the measure does not come from direct self-interest: Bankhead is “straight.”
She adds that the past few months have been a source of great inspiration.
“It has brought out the romantic in me,” she says. “I have been to so many weddings and it’s like watching hundreds of love stories come true, seeing these couples finally getting the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Weddings are also the source of inspiration for one marriage equality TV ad that has aired since last October. In what begins as a typical perfume or makeup commercial, a blushing young bride looks into the mirror and adjusts her veil while a flower girl rushes by. On her father’s arm, the bride encounters obstacle after obstacle as she makes her way to the altar. She stumbles over the “Just Married” aluminum cans trailing behind a car. A low-hanging branch pulls the veil from her hair. She is tripped by a spectator’s cane as she makes her way down the aisle. The commercial, paid for by Equality California, ends with the bride’s tear-filled gaze looking at her would-be husband and the question: “What would you do if you couldn’t marry the person that you love?”
The Yes on 8 campaign takes a more literal approach in their commercial, “4 Men in Black,’’ opting for a matter-of-fact narration and simple graphics. A black shadow of California floats onscreen while a voice-over reminds viewers that 61 percent of state voters supported Prop. 22 and suggests that “activist judges’’ reversed the will of the people.
More recently, the campaign has aired a spot with a clip of a broadly smiling Gavin Newsom to suggest he is saying that Californians will have to get used to gay marriage– “whether you like it not.’’
But Bankhead says even the language of the new ballot initiative seems to suggest that gay rights’ opponents are on the wrong side of history.
The state has chosen to describe Prop. 8 as an initiative that “eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry,” despite Kerns’ contention that it really means “that marriage is best defined as being between one man and one woman.”
“We are not asking for anything that opposite sex couples don’t have,” says Wood. “We are asking to be equal and to be equally dignified and respected. We don’t want special rights, just equal rights.”
If there is one thing both sides agree on, it is that the vote will be close. Despite the change in public opinion suggested by polling, Bankhead is cautiously optimistic at best. “At the end of the day it’s going to be a dead heat,” she says, perhaps spinning to beat the expectations game. Kerns agrees: “There’s no doubt about it; it’s going to be close.”
A Sept. 25 poll of 670 likely voters by Survey USA contradicted previous results by indicating a 5 percent lead for Prop. 8; with a margin of error of 3.9 percent, the poll reflects a statistical photo finish.
According to a poll conducted Oct. 4 and 5 by Survey USA on behalf of four California television stations, support for Prop. 8 is rising. The latest figures show that 47 percent now support the initiative, with 42 percent opposed. (The last poll from the same group, released on Sept. 25 had found 44 percent for the measure and 49 percent against.)
Prop. 8’s supporters and opponents, however, caution that such polls are extremely volatile, and that right now the race is just too close to call.
Wood and Dubinsky considered going to Canada or Massachusetts to marry before the state Supreme Court’s ruling but decided against it.
“I was born and raised in California,” Wood says. “I should be able to marry in my own state where I have my life and family. I want my own state to accept me.”
Recently, she came face to face with the opposition in her own neighborhood.
On Sept. 11, members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Prosperity lined the corner of San Carlos and Ocean in Carmel. Wearing red cloaks, the protestors held banners reading, “Californians support traditional marriage” (though the group reportedly consisted entirely of Pennsylvanians). Wood approached the protest, which took place a few blocks from her store, but her arguments fell on deaf ears.
“I tried to talk to one of them, but he cringed and pulled away,” she says.
After a similar encounter with anti-gay demonstrators during Pride, Hamm and Jonson reacted the only way they knew how: with love.
“Over the years, I’ve even gotten my nose broken simply based on how I look– and I grew up in the Bay Area,” Hamm says. “I’ve found that we can accomplish more through conscious love than through hate.”