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For the Moment, Concentrate on Being Civil

Mickey Wheatley is a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles and a gay rights activist.

Even those of us who doubted that there would be a backlash from the spate of San Francisco and Massachusetts same-sex marriages must now feel the sting of the sharp slap aimed at the gay rights movement on election day.

Eleven of 11 states that had anti-gay-marriage amendments passed them, in most cases by overwhelming margins. Huge numbers of President Bush’s supporters cited “moral values” -- apparently including opposition to gay marriage -- as their top issue in the election.

I confess that earlier this year I succumbed to a giddy and gleeful inflation of pride when gay couples lined up in San Francisco by the hundreds to demand the right to complete equality as promised by our Constitution and the progressive force of history.

But in this chill fall air, it’s time to face harsh reality. We grossly miscalculated. Our gambit for marriage was a resounding failure. Our insular marriage strategy was concocted in the echo chambers of professional homosexual organizations, in the haze of coastal fog and the big Nielsen ratings of “Will & Grace.” It fueled gay aspirations throughout the nation, providing us a naive faith in a lavender-blind America.

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We fantasized about a United States where even homosexuals could share in a bedrock heterosexual institution. But in the real United States, a rigid, anti-gay ideology now controls two and soon three branches of the federal government.

Even worse, polls suggest that our insistence on the right to marry, more than anything else, consolidated the power of these zealots, handing Bush and right-wing senators this election. Their victory will ensure the appointment of a new Supreme Court that will be likely to adjudicate us right out of the Constitution.

Of course, it would be unfair to strictly blame the gay movement for this dreadful outcome. Nevertheless, our strategic miscalculations have had the worst sort of effect. We have permitted the forces of reaction to undermine a basic liberal value of tolerance for diversity, a value that gays and lesbians need for our very survival. And the damage goes well beyond our own movement; a fundamentalist-leaning nation, increasingly hateful and hated, will have no authority in the global battle for authentic freedom.

For the foreseeable future, we should let the heterosexuals keep marriage as their special right. We gays want the legal benefits of marriage to protect and stabilize our families. And we want the status of full equality for our humanity’s sake. But the first can be solved with civil unions. Despite the humiliation of “settling” for anything less than full marriage, it is better than losing access to the benefits of civil unions in the wake of the backlash.

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Frankly, it would be selfish to our families, to our children, to risk being denied protective civil-union laws because of a losing effort to stick our thumbs in the face of fundamentalists. We can let them have their sacred institution and then lead the way to the more progressive civil-union model.

Many Americans of goodwill support our movement but remain skittish about the prospect of gay marriage. We cannot afford to alienate them now. Frankly, we need all the support we can muster.


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