July 15, 2005
A different view on gay marriage

Bluebonnet from PinkDome published an interview with Chris Bell the other day, and the question of gay marriage came up:

BB: What do you think about gay marriage? For real, now.

CB: I don't support gay marriage, but the constitutional amendment doesn't make sense. It's designed to drive a wedge instead of building bridges. I support civil unions, because everyone deserves equal protection. President Bush agrees! There shouldn't be a referendum on gay marriage.

The no-to-gay-marriage, yes-to-civil-unions response is pretty standard among Democratic politicians, but some folks, like John, wonder if it makes sense. Maybe there's a better way to address the issue.

I received an email from Carl Whitmarsh's list yesterday that suggests a different approach. It's taken from a March 10 article in the National Journal's Hotline. I present it beneath the fold for your review. I think it has a lot of appeal, and at the very least deserves some discussion. What do you think?

UPDATE: Commenter Drew at the PinkDome post notes that Chris Bell had a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign in 2004. Greg Moses expands on that and gives the relevant details.

National Journal's Hotline
March 10, 2005

Same Sex, Different Response

In our ongoing "Great Debate" series, we tackle the Dem response to gay marriage. To kick off the conversation, we asked CA-based Dem consultant Eric Jaye, an advisor to San Fran Mayor Gavin Newsom, to share what he's learned.

One of the Dem consultants whose on the frontlines on the gay marriage issue is Eric Jaye, founder of Storefront Political Media, a CA-based firm specializing in general consulting and media. His recent campaigns and clients include No on 36 in OR (a gay marriage ban), the MI Dem Party and Gavin Newsom for Mayor of San Francisco. Because gay marriage is among the cultural issues that many Dems believe is the cause of many of their problems, we thought it would be good to see what consultants and strategists are advising on this issue. We asked Jaye to share the advice he's giving in column form.

Among the arguments Jaye makes on the gay marriage issue is that no campaign against a gay marriage ban is going to succeed if those campaigning against the ban are not making the case FOR "something else." The something else, in his opinion, is gay marriage or civil unions. This is a topic Dems all over the country are wrestling with; we hope Jaye's article starts a debate and we're open to printing the responses from other strategists who are trying to figure out this issue.

A Democratic Strategy on Gay Marriage
by Eric Jaye

Last year the Democrats had numerous opportunities to stand on principle -- and in doing so show they had the courage to stand for something. No opportunity was greater than the raging debate over gay marriage.

Facing an evenly divided electorate, Republican strategists surmised that victory in 2004 lay in driving turnout among their base voters. That's why they placed attacks on gay marriage on state ballots in swing states. They believed that such a debate would drive turnout, particularly among low-turnout Christian evangelical voters.

What did the Democrats do? By and large they ducked, with poll-crafted drivel that made them seem like typical politicians, not courageous leaders.

Most voters do not yet support gay marriage - although support for equal matrimonial rights has risen dramatically in the past decade. Polls show a sharp generational divide, with the majority of voters under 40 in support of gay marriage and the majority of voters over 60 strongly opposed.

But in this day and age, most swing voters reserve more venom for vacillating politicians than they do for two gay people deciding to adopt the bourgeois convention of lifetime commitment and matrimony.

It is this disdain for vacillating politicians that allows President George Bush to take so many controversial stands yet still win elections for himself and his party. It's called leadership and voters reward it.

On a woman's right to choice, Iraq, environmental protection, outsourcing and Social Security - Bush is 'wrong' from a pollsters' perspective. Yet, why does he still seem so right to so many voters?

Bush wins by being "wrong" because his controversial positions resonate as authentic. American voters don't agree with him on key issues -- but they tend to believe he "stands up for what he believes." In a political landscape in which character matters more than ideology, Bush wins by seeming "real" to voters.

So while Bush seems authentic at the very moment he is pursuing a political ploy to excite his right-wing base - Democrats seem weak and untrustworthy - not just to their base supporters, but to the broad mass of swing voters.

With a few exceptions, most Democrats simply lack credibility when they say they oppose gay marriage. We have the honor of belonging to a party that has been on the forefront of the civil rights movement for more than 50 years. Most voters, in most states, expect us to stand for civil rights - even when these very same voters are taking a go-slow approach.

So who do we think we are fooling when we mumble finely nuanced positions on gay marriage? The truth is we are only fooling ourselves.

We have now survived an entire generation of poll-tested politicians and incremental politics. Finely crafted "agreement" messages, once an innovation, are now an invitation to ridicule. Not just late at night on television, but at almost any hour, we can all enjoy a good laugh at the expense of a politician who is merely reading from a poll-tested script.

So what's the right answer when Democrats are asked, "Do you support gay marriage?" The right answer, in almost every case, is the truth. And in most cases, the truth is "Yes."

First and foremost - by saying "Yes" we are standing for something, even when the majority of voters don't yet support our position. And telling the truth makes us sound like real people, not like robo politicians. But more than this - by saying "Yes" we can seize political terrain that allows us to drive the debate, not duck it.

And we are finding that when we take the offensive on the issue of gay rights and gay marriage, we can make real progress. At the very least, we have a fighting chance when we stop ducking the issue of gay rights and start debating it with clear and concise language.

Along with a team of top-notch consultants, we worked on the successful campaign in 2004 to repeal Article 12 of the Cincinnati City Charter, which allowed discrimination against lesbian and gays. Just this month we helped defeat the Topeka City Question in Topeka, Kansas that would have allowed discrimination against gays. Both campaigns were played out in the context over the debate on gay marriage.

Last year, as former consultants to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, we were closely involved in presenting the "winter of love" gay marriages to the public. We were also part of the unsuccessful effort in Oregon in 2004 to defeat the attack on gay marriage.

We took away from those successes, and that failure, the belief that when it comes to gay marriage the simple truth is better than a complicated lie.

But more than that - in the long run we can't win if we don't debate. And let's not fool ourselves, this debate is not going away. The Republicans put it on the agenda, and they will keep it there, particularly so long as we refuse to even articulate our own position.

Cautious Democrats should face the fact that no position on gay marriage is the weakest possible stance. Silence is read as support for gay marriage. And your silence is seen as political at best, cowardice at worst. As a party, we might not have chosen this fight. But it is here. Unilateral surrender is not a workable strategy.

And to my fellow consultants I would offer this hard-learned lesson. Anti-gay marriage amendments are being fought on the basis of gay marriage -- not some "hidden flaw" or "costly consequence." These measures are not analogous to some down-ballot initiative that we can define. Voters know what they are about -- gay marriage.

In California, we found during the San Francisco gay marriage insurrection that support for gay marriage increased slightly across the state, and support for civil unions increased dramatically, after we captured the airwaves with images of couples who were absolutely unremarkable in any way other than in their desire to profess life-long love and responsibility for each other.

First in Cincinnati, and then in Topeka, we won campaigns against discrimination in part by seizing the language of morality, rather than ceding it to our opponents.

We crafted mail pieces entitled "Not Just on Sunday," and "Daily Bread," that took up the language of the Lord's Prayer in defense of tolerance and equal rights every day.

We didn't hide from the issue. We didn't run from the moral debate. We embraced it - and won. Democrats around the country have nothing to lose, and so much to gain, from doing likewise.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 15, 2005 to Show Business for Ugly People | TrackBack

Jaye's premise has three pillars to it and they don't necessarily add up:

- gay marriage is, electorally, unpopular.
- candidates can win while holding unpopular positions.
- Democrats should ditch the "no marriage/yes civil unions"

That last point seems to presume that there's no genuine way a Democrat can honestly hold the "no marriage/yes civil unions" position. Or, at a minimum, there are some Dems out there that hold that view for reasons of expediency. I'm not sure I accept either version of that.

Posted by: Greg Wythe on July 15, 2005 11:23 AM

What do I think? I think he is right effing on.

The civil union crap is just that...crap. If the law is going to recognize marriage at all, then any two consenting adults should be allowed to marry.

Every time I hear a Democrat hem and haw about gay marriage, it makes me want to scream. I vote for Ds but don't consider myself one, because of the appalling lack of leadership and straightforwardness on issues like this one. STAND for something, for gosh sakes.

Posted by: hope on July 15, 2005 12:39 PM

I've been curious about this for some time. Is there any Democrat (or any person, for that matter) out there who, if he had they power to wave his hand and suddenly, permanently change public policy, would allow civil unions but disallow gay marriage?

The only even semi-coherent argument I've heard against gay marriage is the libertarian position: government should not be in the business of marrying people. (In other words: "Those 1300-odd benefits that come along with marriage, as listed in that research Dick Cheney requested a few years back? Get rid of 'em.") It's one of those arguments that has a patina of sense to it, but it's pretty ridiculous if you think about it; it'd be like arguing in the fifties that the way to end segregation on buses is to abolish public transportation.

So, the libertarian argument aside: is there any person who genuinely believes (or any sensible, non-Leviticus, non-libertarian argument that) gay marriage is wrong and civil unions are right? If so, please enlighten us.

Posted by: RMG on July 15, 2005 2:11 PM

Every time I hear a Democrat hem and haw about gay marriage, it makes me want to scream. I vote for Ds but don't consider myself one, because of the appalling lack of leadership and straightforwardness on issues like this one. STAND for something, for gosh sakes.

I don't know. I don't see that as a showstopper. It's really about attaining equal civil rights as a married couple, is it not? If that's the idea, I don't see why redefining "marriage" -- long accepted as one man and one woman -- is necessary. And if it means throwing bones to the center who are uneasy about "gay marriage" but are also uneasy about the lack of rights that committed gay couples have, it's better to get those civil rights and call it a "civil union" than insist on changing the definition of the word "marriage" and getting nothing.

As far as the "stand for something" comment, I agree. This has been a problem with the Democrats for years now. Between that and their inability to give details about how they'd fix things, many people don't really have any faith that they'd be able to advance their agenda.

Posted by: Tim on July 15, 2005 2:36 PM

I have yet to hear anyone give a credible explanation of the yes civil unions / no gay marriage position. I am not saying it doesn't exist, just that I've yet to hear a candidate explain it adequately.

The line about marriage being a religious institution, etc. simply makes no sense. Legal civil marriage is NOT a religious institution. If it was, you couldn't wander into a city office and get a legal marriage with no religious component whatsoever.

I think it's important, though, when taking an unpopular position, to explain WHY you are taking it. I would love to see a Democrat get up there and say, "gay civil marriage is good for our whole society because it encourages people to be part of a stable household. We're never going to tell anyone what to believe, or tell a church what it must recognize and celebrate, but in strictly legal terms, we should give all citizens the ability to form stable, legally protected households."

Posted by: John on July 15, 2005 2:39 PM

I don't see why redefining "marriage" -- long accepted as one man and one woman -- is necessary. And if it means throwing bones to the center who are uneasy about "gay marriage" [. . .]

Now see, you're making two very different arguments here. One is substantive - you genuinely believe marriage is only between a man and a woman, and any change to that is an affront to tradition. The other is political - better to compromise and get something rather than push too hard and get nothing.

Maybe (and this is a gigantic maybe) the latter view has some merit to it, although it's a pretty dubious proposition; I can't think of a single example of where the 'go-slow' approach has eventually helped minorities obtain equality. But it's a point that I think many people, myself included, would be willing to consider.

But if you're suggesting there is something intrinsically wrong with the concept of gay marriage because "redefining" marriage is wrong, well...I think you and Earl Warren need to have a little chat.

Posted by: RMG on July 15, 2005 3:47 PM

Maybe the answer is to redefine all marriages as "civil unions", and leave the M-word to the religious side of things.

Posted by: Dave Bell on July 16, 2005 2:32 AM

John is right that civil marriage is not a religious institution. I'm an atheist, and I can marry an atheist -- as long as she's a woman -- legally without going near a church or religious official. A lot of Americans, including Al Gore, can't grasp this distinction, however. During the 2000 campaign Gore said that marriage was a "sacrament" that should be reserved for men and women, and leaving aside my reaction that "sacrament" is an odd term for a Baptist to use, he was just plain wrong: civil marriage is not a sacrament.

However, a lot of gay people, including those who want same-sex marriage legalized, are no less confused. What many of them want is a church wedding, and legalizing same-sex marriage will not give them that. I've heard some of my fellow Homo-Americans wondering why the government doesn't just force churches to accept them. Well, there's this little thing called the First Amendment... But gay Christians are in generally not much more interested in the separation of church and state than their straight counterparts.

On the other hand, *is* it a good thing for the government to "encourage people to be part of a stable household"? What business is it of the government to intervene in such areas? That makes me nervous, because such reasoning underlies attempts to make divorce harder to get, to say nothing of the good-old fashioned laws we used to have against adultery, sodomy, and the like? And does a stable household necessarily consist of a legally married couple? I realize that the cheap pandering that advocates of same-sex marriage go in for, in hopes of persuading bigots that we're not so different from, requires that hard questions not be asked. But I have a long-standing bias of my own, that responsible movements for social justice should tell the truth and shame the devil.

Dave Bell, I've often advocated just that -- redefine all civil marriages as civil unions. But I don't think heterosexuals would stand for it; you'd be saying that they weren't 'really' married, etc. And I'm not really willing to let "the religious side of things" have the M-word, or anything else. There's another side of it, though: what would really stop a same-sex civil-unioned couple from informally referring to themselves as married, if they view their relationship as a marriage? Nothing I can see.

The real trouble, it seems to me, is that most advocates of same-sex marriage have not really thought things through very well. They tend to assume that "marriage" is a good thing, and that Homo-Americans should be able to have the same good things as everyone else. (Our enemies, by contrast, don't need to think well, or at all. They can just scream and dig in their heels.) There's a tendency to slippage between 'realist' arguments (same-sex couples need civil protections like health care, inheritance, etc.) and mawkish sentimentality (marriage is essentially about love, etc., while visions of Bride magazine dance in their heads). Folks should read gay Catholic theologian Mark Jordan's flawed but interesting "Blessing Same-sex Unions," where he does a nice number on the sentimentality.

They also tend to think that they can fool their opponents by sleight of language, like "civil unions." (The Roman Catholic church isn't fooled: both Wojtyla and Ratzinger denounced all civil recognition of same-sex relationships, partly because in many parts of Europe, civil marriages already equals civil marriage.) Granted, politics is the art of the possible. But in public discussion we should at least know what we're talking about, and follow the truth fearlessly.

Posted by: Fletcher on July 16, 2005 11:22 AM

Ah, I knew this post would stir up a shitstorm.

I have yet to hear anyone give a credible explanation of the yes civil unions / no gay marriage position.

It does make sense, but only if you do it the right way. Since the idea is to treat gays and straights equally, here's how:

  1. Marriage becomes strictly a church function, with no official sanction from the state. This is currently true for gays but not for straights.

  2. Civil unions become the state function, for both gays and straights.

As I understand it, this is how things are handled in many European countries. It would have several advantages for the U.S. as well:

  1. It would more cleanly separate church from state. Churches would continue to choose whether or not to marry gays, and no one would worry that the state's recognition of gay unions would somehow oblige any church to do the same; and

  2. It would treat equally not only gays and straights, but also the religious and the nonreligious.

A few commentators have expressed interest in this scheme (Al Franken is one), but unfortunately, that's not what most politicians mean by the yes civil unions / no gay marriage position. Instead, they usually have in mind a hybrid system as exists in Vermont, where the state automatically recognizes church marriages between straights, but not gays; and performs civil "unions" between gays but civil "marriages" between straights. This "separate but equal" system does grant gay couples all the rights and priveleges of married straight couples (at least under state law), but making gays jump through an extra set of hoops still gives them a bit of second-class status. (Not to mention that the semantic distinction between "unions" and "marriages" makes it much harder for gay couples to challenge Federal laws like DOMA.)

I don't like it, but I can understand the faintheartedness of Democratic politicians on this issue. Most Americans are still viscerally opposed to "gay marriage." Which just tells me that supporters still have a lot of public education work to do. States like Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal, will undoubtedly help too, as people see that the "institution of marriage" survives this "challenge" just fine.

Posted by: Mathwiz on July 16, 2005 6:52 PM

Mathwhiz: "shitstorm"? Not at all. You got some very sensible and rational responses. And simply repeating yourself in reply does not constitute rational argument.

One reason to be skeptical about the "civil union" option, by the way, is that it does NOT automatically "grant gay couples all the rights and priveleges of married straight couples." The difference is not merely "semantic": existing civil unions in the US are something like Marriage Lite, pared down to give same-sex couples a very separate-but-unequal second-tier status. Even if DOMA hadn't become law (thank you, President Clinton!), there's no reason why Vermont civil unions should necessarily be recognized by other states *unless* they happened to have similar unions themselves.

It would be nice if Democratic politicians were more willing to go out on a limb for this or any issue; but first, straight politicians are ignorant about gay issues generally, and they have often been misled by misinformed (or disinforming) gay lobbyists. It's clear, as I said, that gay advocates of same-sex marriage haven't thought the issue through very well, and you can't simplify for others if you don't understand the complexities yourself. Second, it's not really up to politicians to lead. Their constituencies should be directing them, not vice versa.

Posted by: Fletcher on July 17, 2005 12:09 PM

"This "separate but equal" system does grant gay couples all the rights and priveleges of married straight couples (at least under state law)"

Mathwiz: you do understand that 'separate but equal' was the doctrine on which racial segregation was based in this country for half a century, and that it is, intrinsically, a bad, bad thing, right?

I'm not being facetious here; I'm genuinely curious if you knew that.

Posted by: RMG on July 18, 2005 8:42 AM

Agreed, RMG. I've been surprised at how many kindly heterosexual moderates have explicitly offered us queers civil unions as a "separate but equal" option. They don't seem to realize that the term is much a red flag as "Some of my best friends are..."

Incidentally, there's a much better discussion of this issue at


Posted by: Fletcher on July 18, 2005 11:26 AM