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Happiness should not be just for heterosexuals

Motorists are getting gouged at the gas pump. Families are losing their homes. The war is a debacle and embarrassment.

Healthcare costs soar out of control. Food prices strain household budgets. Climate change could devastate the planet.

And we’re supposed to worry about what two people living together in a loving relationship are called? “Partners” or “married”?

Whatever makes them happy, I say.

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And clearly that means being dubbed married, as evidenced by the thousands of same-sex couples planning to get legally hitched starting today.

It took a few decades for me to reach that conclusion. As I wrote three years ago, my shift began in 1997 during a chat at the back of the state Senate chamber with then-President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, currently California’s treasurer.

How’d he feel about gay marriage? I asked.

“You know,” he replied, “people have so many problems, and life’s so short, if letting gays marry gives them some joy and happiness, why not? I say let them do it.”

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That made a lot of sense. What firmly switched me to Lockyer’s side, however, was a long Senate debate in 2005 on a bill to allow same-sex marriages.

Particularly compelling was a speech by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who talked about marriage “reinforcing traditional values: accountability, monogamy, commitment, the rule of law. . . . " Society should be encouraging that, he asserted, whether heterosexual or same sex.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is gay, was passed by the Legislature and promptly vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor’s thinking also seems to have evolved. Schwarzenegger has announced that he won’t support a November ballot initiative to overturn the California Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing same-sex marriages.

The public’s shift from rejection of gay marriage toward seemingly inevitable acceptance can be seen among its elected representatives in the Legislature. Democrats gradually have become more warmly supportive while Republicans have cooled their opposition.

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I remember one sordid Assembly debate in 1991 when a Republican assemblyman described in graphic, unprintable detail his vision of homosexual acts. A few years later, an elderly GOP rancher stood on the Assembly floor and rambled on about gay heifers. By 2005, only two Republican senators rose to speak out against the Leno bill, thoughtfully and calmly.

The fact that a Republican-dominated court sanctioned gay marriages is another reflection of the changing social attitudes.

A statewide Field poll conducted after the May 15 court ruling showed that 51% of registered voters approve of same-sex marriage, with 42% opposed. That’s the first time in three decades of asking the question that more people have approved of gay marriage than opposed it, poll director Mark DiCamillo says. In 1977, only 28% approved and 59% disapproved.

Ever since the court acted, pundits have been speculating about the political impact of the November ballot initiative, which would decree simply: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.”

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That’s the same language voters approved by a landslide in 2000. But that initiative was only a statute, and the court ruled that it violated the California Constitution. So the November initiative would amend the Constitution.

My prediction: The initiative’s political impact will be zilch, with one exception.

If the gay marriage side prevails, it will provide a powerful boost to the 2010 gubernatorial prospects of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose bold defiance of the law in marrying same-sex couples four years ago led to the court’s landmark ruling. But if the voters reject gay marriage, they’ll also erect a high hurdle for Newsom running statewide.

“He took a huge risk doing what he did,” says Garry South, former campaign strategist for ex-Gov. Gray Davis. “Newsom is one of the more interesting and attractive faces in California politics in some time. There’s a lot about him that is Barack Obama-like. He energizes that youthful voter core.”

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But it’s fantasy to theorize that the initiative will affect the presidential race by attracting a large turnout of conservative voters who could flip California to John McCain. The Republican nominee won’t waste his money trying to compete in this blue state.

If anything, the presidential race will affect the initiative: Obama will attract young voters who support same-sex marriage.

Could California’s initiative erupt into a national issue that swings battleground states toward McCain because voters link gay marriage with the Democratic Party? Doubtful. Not when voters are fixated on $5 gas, home foreclosures and an incompetently run war.

Moreover, Obama doesn’t support gay marriage.

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It’s impossible to predict the initiative’s fate. Most politicos expect a close vote. The winner may be the side that is least scary.

“Both sides should keep their fringe elements in check,” says Rob Stutzman, who managed the winning 2000 initiative. “Put the fire-eating Christians under a porch somewhere . . . [and] it’s not going to be a good time for lots of drag-queen parades in San Francisco.”

Leno says he hopes the TV news will show wedding ceremonies with “loving, committed people being treated equally under the law. . . .

“What we’re talking about is fairness, respect, dignity and validation of the fact we’re all human beings with a desire to love other human beings in a committed and intimate fashion.”

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Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, says he hopes voters will be offended by TV footage of “homosexuals waving marriage licenses and kissing on the lips.”

Says Frank Schubert, the initiative’s chief strategist: “It will probably be the most watched campaign in the country outside the presidential race.”

Americans everywhere will be watching to see whether Californians embrace a historic culture shift.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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