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‘I do’ waits for ‘We can’

Times Staff Writer

When Kate Sherwood considered the institution of marriage, it was the overworked and undervalued wives of her parents’ generation who came to mind. She wanted a partnership of equals but felt that none existed in the traditional model of matrimony. Then she met Chris and Rich, a gay couple, unmarried but committed life partners. Through them, Sherwood says, she learned what makes a good marriage work. Compromise. Love. Equity.

So, during a basketball game in 1996, Sherwood proposed to her boyfriend, Jim DeLaHunt. He accepted. But DeLaHunt couldn’t shake the fact that his fiancee’s “role model couple” -- who had inspired her to propose in the first place -- couldn’t legally marry. As an acknowledgment, he and Sherwood asked that, in lieu of wedding gifts, well-wishers make contributions to Marriage Project-Hawaii and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund-Marriage Project, groups that had pioneered the legal fight for gay marriage in Hawaii in the early 1990s. Then they started marching in gay pride parades and joined Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). DeLaHunt eventually joined the board of Marriage Equality California, the group leading the charge for same-sex marriage here. And now he and Sherwood, both Palo Alto software engineers, lecture other straight couples on marriage -- an institution that Sherwood embraced only after she saw a long-term gay relationship up close.

Today, the issue of gay marriage is a major battlefront in the culture wars. After a decade of skirmishes, the actions of recent weeks have provoked a national debate, as Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, San Francisco disobeyed state law and married more than 4,000 gay couples in 29 days, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and the Massachusetts Legislature took on the state’s high court with an amendment to do the same. The politics are personal, demanding that everyone, gay and straight, take a stand.

Never before, say gay activists, have “non-gay allies” like Sherwood and DeLaHunt been so vital. These straight people who come out in support of gay marriage identify their mission in capital letters as The Struggle or The Movement. They pepper their defense of gay marriage with references to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala., the Holocaust and South Africa’s apartheid.

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And they use their own relationships as catalysts for debate. Some forgo marriage licenses -- and the legal protections and benefits they afford -- to protest the fact that gays can’t legally marry. Others marry in Massachusetts, where the state high court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is legal takes effect May 17. Instead of cookware and bed linens, newlyweds ask for contributions to groups such as Equal Marriage, Marriage Equality and Freedom to Marry. Still others organize discussions of the issue within their churches and synagogues. They write op-ed pieces and call talk radio shows. Straight ministers are showing support by refusing to sign marriage licenses for straight couples until same-sex couples can legally marry. And coalitions of clergy and rabbis are buying newspaper ads and holding news conferences to publicize their support.

“This is the great civil rights struggle of our generation,” says DeLaHunt, 41. “This is my generation’s great social justice struggle. We wanted to be able to tell our children and grandchildren that 50 years ago we were on the right side of history.”

Their stand’s high cost

Attorneys Kaethe Morris Hoffer and Matt Hoffer Morris married at a Quaker meeting in Hoffer’s hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1999. They returned to Chicago. They set up house. But they deliberately refused a marriage license. It was their way of showing solidarity with their gay friends. And, as it turned out, an expensive protest.

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They paid about $500 to legally change their names, adopting each other’s surnames. They signed over medical powers of attorney to each other. They filed taxes separately and accepted that in old age, neither would be eligible for spousal Social Security or Medicare benefits. When Hoffer left her job to have a baby, she also left behind her health insurance. She couldn’t get coverage on Morris’ health plan because only gay couples qualified as domestic partners. As a result, they paid an extra $400 a month for health insurance for nearly two years.

Ultimately, they couldn’t afford their political stand. So they donated the cost of one year of Hoffer’s health insurance -- $5,000 -- to the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign. Then they flew to Boston and got a marriage license. Their families filled their hotel room with flowers.

“The law is very important to us,” says Hoffer, 33, former director of federal affairs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. “If we were both artists, we might have made some different choices about how we expressed our opposition to the relegation of gays and lesbians. Straight people, just as gay people, will have different ways of participating in the struggle.”

Waiting until all can wed

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Cantor Fran Chalin, 46, who is bisexual, and attorney Robert Philips, 49, have been together 14 years. They have two children and own a house in Lincoln Heights together. Two years ago, they had a Jewish wedding ceremony, and today most strangers recognize them as a married couple. But they refer to one another as “partner,” not “husband” or “wife,” because they’ve never gotten a marriage license and don’t intend to until gays can legally wed.

It’s an intensely personal way to protest, one that comes with real sacrifice. For example, Philips can’t legally adopt his own children. But Chalin, who points out that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, says her challenges are minor compared with those faced by gay families.

“What feels difficult to me is that all families don’t have equal protection in this country,” Chalin says. “My family in Eastern Europe didn’t have the protection that other families have. I suspect both my cultural upbringing as well as my past in same-gender couples informs what I do as opposed to the ... difficulties I incur.”

Chalin was especially moved by the injustices gay couples face after a car accident sent her family and the children of their friends, a lesbian couple, to the hospital.

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“They released information to me about my children, but when I brought Pam and Mindy into the ER to talk to the doctors, they kept saying, ‘Who’s the mom? Who’s the mom?’ ” says Chalin. “Finally I said, ‘This is a two-mom family.’ And they kind of went, ‘Oh.’ And of course no one asked me those questions.”

Chalin notes with irony that a few months later, Pam and Mindy got married in San Francisco. Chalin and Philips remain unmarried.

“We still have the luxury of passing [as married] that our friends who are same-gender couples don’t have,” says Chalin. “Even without taking the privileges, society bestows them on us and says, ‘Well of course you’re married.’ It’s an odd experience. We’re being identified by virtue of what we look like.”

The roots of the battle

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The struggle to legalize gay marriage in the United States has been long and arduous. The court challenges began in the 1970s, but it was a case in the ‘90s that first came close to winning approval -- and inspired national debate. In late 1990, three gay couples in Hawaii sued the state for denying them marriage licenses, and lost. They appealed the case to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which led to years of legal and legislative battles.

Before the court could issue its final ruling, the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress fast-tracked the Defense of Marriage Act, barring states from recognizing same-sex marriages. It was signed into law by President Clinton, who was running for reelection. Then, in 1998, voters in Hawaii approved an amendment to the state constitution authorizing the Legislature to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. That action rendered moot the Hawaii Supreme Court’s final ruling in 1999, which would have granted gays the right to marry. Dozens of similar state “defense of marriage” statutes followed the federal one, including California’s Proposition 22 in 2000.

Still, there were some victories for gay activists. In 2000, Vermont became the first and only state to approve civil unions, which extended all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples. In the last five years, California has expanded its domestic partner law several times, most recently with the Domestic Partnership Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law, ruling that prohibition of homosexual sex was unconstitutional. And in November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued the broadest ruling to date on the issue, declaring that denying gays the right to marry violates the state Constitution. In Monday’s vote, legislators approved an amendment to the state Constitution banning gay marriage. Before it can become law, it must be approved again in 2005, then presented as a ballot initiative.

All along, support from straight people has been crucial, say gay activists. For a community that has no personal stake in the outcome to make even small sacrifices elevates the relevance and credibility of the issue, they say.

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“Ultimately, we won’t win without non-gay allies,” says L.J. Carusone, executive director of the Southern California branch of Marriage Equality. “We don’t have the numbers required to make a difference at the polls. Even though we can effect change, we need support from the larger community.”

Every social movement in American history has demanded the same, says Evan Wolfson, who served as co-counsel in the Hawaii case and is now executive director of Marriage Equality. “The history of civil rights in this country is that no group of Americans can do it on their own,” he says. “As we talk about marriage and ask non-gay Americans to think through whether there’s a reason for this exclusion from marriage, more and more people realize there is no good reason.”

Ambivalence to support

In high school in Ventura, Bruce Bradley was “a typical jock who picked on gay kids.” But he realized peer pressure was more to blame than dislike for homosexuals. Little by little, he moved from ambivalence to dedicated support of gay rights. By the late ‘90s, Bradley was using his position as a talk radio jock on Ventura’s KVEN to speak out against the Defense of Marriage Act. He joined PFLAG, began volunteering at the Ventura County Gay and Lesbian Center and joined the fight against Proposition 22.

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When Bradley and Lisa Nunez got engaged in 1999, they chose not to marry because their gay friends didn’t have the same right. Instead, they accompanied a group of gay activists to the Beverly Hills Courthouse, went inside and applied for a marriage license, then came out and promptly ripped it up in front of the cheering protesters.

“When I was a kid studying history, we learned our treatment of black people was wrong, our treatment of women was wrong, our treatment of Native Americans was wrong,” says Bradley, who now works in marketing. “I guess it shocks me that people don’t realize the treatment of gays and lesbians is the same thing.”

Since their engagement, Nunez, 28, and Bradley, 33, have signed myriad legal documents to protect their relationship in case of tragedy. They registered as domestic partners in Santa Barbara, but the state of California won’t recognize them as such until one of them turns 62. (The Domestic Partnership Rights and Responsibilities Act, which goes into effect in 2005, applies to only same-sex couples and straight couples in which one member is 62 or older and eligible for Social Security.)

“It’s kind of the way it was with interracial marriage in the ‘60s,” says Bradley. “When same-sex marriage is fully legal, then she and I will get married. And it’ll be well worth the wait.”

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