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    April 16, 2007

    Those devilish details

    Posted by: Chris

    Hillary_clinton Kudos to Lou Chibbaro and my former colleagues at the Washington Blade for an excellent report this week on how all the talk from the Democrats running for president about "equal rights" for gay couples hasn't translated into any real sense of what they're actually talking about.

    We know that Hillary, Obama and Edwards oppose gay marriage and support civil unions. But what does that really mean, considering they're running for president and those issues are decided at the state level?

    No one believes that Clinton, Obama, Edwards or the other Democrats support legislation to enact civil unions nationwide. Most Democrats are already on record favoring the idea of letting states decide what level of recognition, whether through marriage or some other form, to give same-sex couples.

    But that still leaves open what form of federal recognition will come for gay couples in those states that do enact marriage (Massachusetts), civil unions (Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey) or some form of domestic partnership (California, D.C., Hawaii, etc.). There are all sorts of possibilities. I offered up my own view, in a blog post ("Moving Beyond the Mushy") back in early February, about what specifics we should seek from the Dems:

    1. Repeal the portion of the Defense of Marrige Act that blocks all federal recognition of valid state marriage licenses issued to gay couples.  If the issue really should "be left to the states," as leading Dems are fond of saying, then the feds should respect the conclusions reached by each.
    2. Federal recognition of state-issued civil unions, at least for tax, Social Security and immigration purposes. After a half-repeal of DOMA (see #1), gay marriages would also be treated the same as civil unions at the federal level.
    3. Full-throated opposition to ballot measures at the state level designed to amend state constitutions to block gay marriage.  It's long past time leading Democrats found their voice in defending the role played by the judiciary in defending civil rights.  Respecting constitutions and judges doesn't require agreeing with every ruling.

    The Blade story hit some of the same highlights, especially the half-repeal of DOMA and federal recognition of civil unions. Interestingly, though, several leading gay activist sources suggested in the story that pushing for federal recognition of civil unions undermines the case for full-fledged marriage:

    HRC and other national gay advocacy groups so far have not called on Congress to pass a bill recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships sanctioned by state laws.

    “Though such a bill would provide significant protections for our community, it does not constitute same-sex marriage,” said Allison Herwitt, HRC’s legislative director.

    “Within our movement, there is an acknowledgement that only marriage constitutes full equality while civil unions are becoming a reality more quickly, causing advocates of equality to ask tough questions about what position to take on civil unions,” she said.

    Evan Wolfson, executive director of the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said it is far too early for gay groups and their allies to push for a federal civil unions recognition bill.

    With the 2008 presidential election already drawing widespread publicity, Wolfson said gay advocacy groups and their allies should be asking the candidates to spell out what they mean when they express support for equal rights and benefits for same-sex couples through civil unions.

    “When they try to do that, they will realize that there is only one system for doing it and that is marriage,” he said.

    “Why would we want to create a whole new system just to keep gay people from getting equal marriage rights?” Wolfson said. “This is not where the discussion should be at this time.”

    As much as I sympathize with these positions, I think they make the mistake of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The presidential race is not the proper forum to fight for marriage equality. It's a state-level issue, and all but marginal candidates like Congressman Dennis Kucinich are going to commit to it this time around.

    If we are to advance the ball with the first and second-tier candidates from where the Democrats were four years ago, then we need some teeth and some details in all the vague talk about "equal rights" for same-sex couples.  At the very least, we need HRC, the Task Force and other major gay groups to spell out what type of commitments they want to see from the candidates.



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    1. Andoni on Apr 17, 2007 9:59:25 AM:

      Agreed. As I've said many times before, blacks did not get their civil rights all at once. They had to go through a "separate but equal" stage. I think separate but equal is something I would take as the stepping stone to equal. There was a great news article in the NYTimes last week on all the problems NJ civil unions are having because they are NOT marriage. We need that to happen in about a dozen states, highlighting the problems, then we would have our arguments to move on to full marriage.

    1. Rob Power on Apr 18, 2007 12:28:08 PM:

      "blacks did not get their civil rights all at once"

      Separate but equal was not a strategy by black civil rights leaders, but rather something forced upon them by spineless white leaders who knew discrimination was wrong but didn't have the guts to do the right thing. Separate but equal is not a strategic path to equality. Rather, it's a diversion tactic by those who oppose us. We must not let that happen.

    1. Amy Wang on Nov 5, 2008 12:44:33 PM:

      I totally agree. Most people have no idea what it really means to be married on the legal level, and the difference between state and federal benefits. In several disturbing conversations with my family, I was stunned by their ignorance and fear on the issue of same-sex marriages. I realized that the reason for their ignorance was in large part due to the fact that they were unexposed to the difficulties faced by those who deal with discrimination. My husband and I got married this past June. We are planning to file a divorce and petition for a civil partnership (although in California, one opposite-sex couple must be at least 62 years of age). The sacrifice we are willing to make (should we receive our partnership status) will be to forgo the benefits afforded to married couples at the federal level. Yes, we may have to pay more taxes, and perhaps, have to draw up a will, sign a contract regarding the child we are expecting, etc. But until my family sees the difficulties and unfairness that we'll have to endure as "second-class" status to marriage, I'm afraid they'll never understand what "equality for all" really means.

      Now, we just have to find an accountant and lawyer to help us figure out exactly how it will impact our lives.

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