Monday, July 26, 2004

GAY MARRIAGE AND DEMOCRATS. Bennett Lawson is a young gay man from Chicago. An aide to his hometown Democratic congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, Bennett has come to Boston this week to do volunteer outreach to the gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender community. At around 1 p.m. today he was standing outside a conference room at the Sheraton, where the GLBT caucus was holding a standing-room-only meeting. His job was to guard what looked like hundreds of bag lunches prepared for those attending the caucus.

I wanted to ask Lawson about a rather unusual phenomenon: the passionate support that gay and lesbian activists have for same-sex marriage, and their seemingly equally passionate support for John Kerry, even though both he and George W. Bush oppose gay marriage.

Of course, I'm being deliberately disingenuous in phrasing it that way. Yes, Kerry opposes gay marriage, but he also recently voted against a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, an amendment pushed by none other than Bush. Kerry also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a nasty law that was happily signed by Bill Clinton. Still - aren't folks like Lawson just a wee bit put off by Kerry's lack of support for one of the gay community's principal issues?

"He's running nationwide in a country that is not exactly comfortable with gay marriage," Lawson replied. "His record is very, very strong on gay issues. Every good liberal has to moderate things in order to run nationwide - or, in Illinois, to run statewide - but his record really speaks for itself."

I told Lawson that he sounded like he didn't believe Kerry when he says he genuinely opposes same-sex marriage. "No," he replied, laughing. "You know what? I don't." And since Kerry supports civil unions, with all the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marriage, that's good enough for Lawson.

Still, Lawson is less than thrilled at the notion that the Democratic Party establishment would prefer that gay and lesbian voters support Kerry without making too much of a fuss. "I would like to hear the word 'gay' a lot more than I'm hearing," he said. "At the same time, I don't know what that gains."

Shortly before I spoke with Lawson, California senator Barbara Boxer addressed the GLBT caucus. "George Bush has decided that, this year, you're the scapegoat, and I'm here to tell you that you're not the scapegoat," she told the crowd. She raised the specter of a re-elected Bush getting the opportunity to name as many as four Supreme Court justices, and observed that Congress rushed to judgment on the anti-gay-marriage amendment even as a number of homeland-security bills sit unacted upon."They knew they didn't have a chance to pass it, and thank you for all the work that you did," Boxer said, but added: "This hurtful campaign isn't going away. They've just begun."

Given the wildly enthusiastic reception accorded Boxer, I was surprised to learn that her stand on same-sex marriage is exactly the same as Kerry's. In a brief interview, conducted on the run as she headed off to another engagement, Boxer told me that she favors domestic partnerships and civil unions with all the rights of marriage, but not marriage itself. When I sought to clarify by asking her whether she specifically opposed gay marriage, she responded that she would rather stress what she's for rather than what she's against.

I also asked her if she was concerned that, despite Kerry's official opposition to gay marriage, the Republicans would seek use the enthusiasm of Kerry's gay, pro-marriage supporters against him. Her response: "If they want to do that, I think they would be making a terrible mistake."

It's pretty obvious that gay and lesbian activists such as Lawson believe Kerry, Boxer, et al. are being deliberately cynical about their true feelings when it comes to same-sex marriage. Ironically, so do Karl Rove and company. Whether Kerry's inner self supports gay marriage or not, he's clearly walking a very narrow path on the hottest of hot-button issues.

Personally, I'd love to see him come out and declare forthrightly that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. But at the very least, he's decided that that would amount of a political suicide note. And maybe he even thinks it would be wrong.

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