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No compromise on gay rights
Separate is never equal

March 19, 2004 | Page 12

Danielle Leone, Jessica Rothenberg and Elizabeth Schulte report on the latest developments in the fight for gay marriage.

WE CAN'T wait. That's the feeling among supporters of gay marriage. And nowhere was the sentiment felt more strongly than in Massachusetts, where the state legislature voted March 11 in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

That same day, the California Supreme Court ordered San Francisco officials to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples--something the city has been doing since mid-February in defiance of state law. In Massachusetts, the amendment--sponsored by two Democrats, House Speaker Thomas Finneran and Senate President Robert Travaglini--allows civil unions for gays and lesbians, but bars same-sex marriage.

The Democrats tried to sell this as a "compromise" a month after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement at a constitutional convention called after the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled twice to overturn a state ban on gay marriage. On the day of the vote, some 5,000 people--of all ages, races, cultures and sexual orientations--rallied inside and outside the state house.

"They should have listened to the Supreme Judicial Court," said protester Annie Jacobs. "Separate is never equal. We won't settle for anything less than totally equal rights." The constitutional amendment will have to be approved by the legislature again next year--and then in a statewide referendum.

So the Supreme Judicial Court's decision opens the way for gay marriage to take place in the meantime--beginning in May. Ralph Hodgdon and Paul McMahon are planning to get married on May 28, the 49th anniversary of the day they met. "When we met, being gay was considered a disease," Ralph told Socialist Worker. "We never dreamed that one day we would be fighting for gay marriage." Paul added: "We were involved in the civil rights movement, we were involved in the antiwar movement, we always fought for people's rights. Now, it's our turn!"

At the statehouse protests in favor of gay marriage, there was a great sense of solidarity--of people who aren't gay supporting the demand of gays and lesbians for equal rights. A group of men held a sign that said, "Straight Guys for Gay Rights--Go Red Sox." "People's beliefs are being challenged by being at and seeing these protests," said Mary Franck, a local activist.

But this wasn't the whole picture outside the state house. Side by side with the gay rights activists were just as many people demonstrating against gay marriage. Right-wing bigots and the religious right were out in full force, with placards that read, "No to gay marriage. No to civil unions. Yes to Jesus!"

The "Coalition for Marriage"--a well-funded collection of 15 national and local conservative groups--mobilized everyone from college students to immigrant workers. To take on these bigots, a different kind of fight is in order.

All of the pro-gay marriage demonstrations so far have happened spontaneously. We have to mobilize on our campuses and in our communities and workplaces to turn out to defend gay marriage. That five major Boston unions, including the Boston Teachers Union and the United Auto Workers of Massachusetts, have came out in support of gay marriage shows that wider solidarity is possible.

The state constitutional convention will reconvene on March 29 to review more amendments, which gives us two weeks to organize protests that can challenge the bigots. And we have keep up the fight during the two-year-long process of approving the constitutional amendment. Massachusetts activists have to let the politicians know: We aren't settling for a "compromise" on discrimination.

In San Francisco, hundreds of people turned out on a few hours' notice to protest the state Supreme Court's order to the city to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. As protesters--many carrying their marriage licenses--marched through the Castro District and down Market Street, the group swelled to nearly 500.

Chants of "Gay, straight, black, white; Marriage is a civil right!" and "Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry, we all deserve the freedom to marry!" rang through the streets. "The California Supreme Court has sent a message that we have to fight, and that's what I'm going to do," said activist Rick Shaw. In fact, wherever the politicians have tried to put out the fire of gay marriage activism, another struggle has ignited anew somewhere else.

Days after New York's state attorney general ordered Jason West, the Green Party mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., to stop issuing marriage licenses, Asbury Park, N.J., began marrying same-sex couples until the state attorney general ordered city officials to stop. On March 9, the city council in San Jose, Calif., voted 8-1 to recognize gay marriage licenses granted by San Francisco and other cities--one day after Seattle's mayor announced that city employees in same-sex marriages should get the same benefits as other marriages.

But while pro-gay rights activists are mobilizing, the right-wing bigots are organizing, too.

In New York, under a banner supporting Bush's call for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Democratic state Sen. Rubin Diaz led a rally of thousands of people opposing gay marriage on March 14 outside the Bronx County courthouse. Fred Phelps-- the right-wing zealot who cheered the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming--plans to show up in New Paltz on April 4. Activists are discussing how to counter him. Our side needs to get organized if we're going to push the bigots back--and win our right to equal marriage.

In Chicago, activists are taking on local politicians who say they favor gay marriage, but claim that their hands are tied by state law. At the second protest in two weeks for same-sex marriages, activists from the newly formed Equal Marriage Now group challenged Cook County Clerk David Orr: "When Blacks were sitting in at the lunch counters, would you have served that cup of coffee?"

Gay marriage supporters are coming together to form committees to press the issue. In Austin, Texas, about 40 people gathered in early March to form the Austin Coalition for Marriage Equality (ACME).

They plan to petition the mayor and city council, build rallies and teach-ins and eventually demand marriage licenses at the county clerk's office. At the University of California at Davis on March 10, more than 100 students, faculty and community members joined an Emergency Speak-Out in Support of Gay Marriage.

Dana Cloud, Jean Howell, Jake Kornegay, Amanda Maystead and David Thurston contributed to this report.

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