Viewpoint: For Gay Marriage, Time to Go Beyond the Courts

  • Share
  • Read Later
Fred Beckham / AP

Plaintiffs enter the Connecticut State Supreme court in Hartford. The state Supreme Court ruled Friday, Oct. 10, that same-sex couples have the right to marry

It's almost beginning to feel routine. Like the Massachusetts and California high courts before it, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples should be allowed to wed. "Interpreting our state constitutional provisions in accordance with firmly established equal protection principles leads inevitably to the conclusion that gay persons are entitled to marry the otherwise qualified same-sex partner of their choice," Justice Richard Palmer wrote in his 4-3 opinion.

The Connecticut decision lacks the historical frisson of the Massachusetts ruling from 2004 and the extended eloquence of the California ruling from earlier this year. The Connecticut justices didn't take the opportunity — as the California justices did — to dismantle the various arguments that social conservatives have used over the years to oppose marriage equality. There is only one brief moment of righteous clarity in the Connecticut ruling — the part where the court explains why civil unions do not suffice: "Although marriage and civil unions do embody the same legal rights under our law, they are by no means 'equal.' As we have explained, the former is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance, whereas the latter most surely is not."

The Connecticut justices spend most of the remainder of the 85-page decision explaining how gays have been victimized. The court felt this was necessary in order to classify gays as a "quasi-suspect class" entitled to heightened protection under the state constitution. And so there is page after page on how powerless gays and lesbians are. "For centuries," the justices wrote, people have disliked gays. "Until not long ago, gay persons were widely regarded as deviants ... [who were] mentally ill ... [G]ay persons also face virulent homophobia that rests on nothing more than feelings of revulsion ... Insofar as gay persons play a role in the political process, it is apparent that their numbers reflect their status as a small and insular minority." This recitation of gays' weakness goes on for some time.

There are two problems here. First, it's not true that gays play only a small and insular role in politics. According to the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute, there are 398 openly gay elected officials in the U.S., nine of them in Connecticut. The treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Andrew Tobias, is openly gay, and wealthy gay people are among the top donors to the Barack Obama campaign and to outside groups helping Obama.

The second problem is that as long as gays are portrayed as victims who must get special treatment (or "quasi-suspect" status) from the courts, our rights will never be as durable as when we win them through the vote. The backlash to same-sex-marriage court decisions has helped conservatives all over the country, particularly in the 2004 elections. This year, the right has funded a massive campaign to overturn the marriage-equality ruling in California. (Thanks in part to donations from Mormon and Catholic groups, the campaign has raised $24 million so far, according to a Los Angeles Times blogger today; the pro-gay side has raised $15 million.) Earlier this week, a pro-gay group called the Courage Campaign sent supporters an e-mail noting that both an internal poll undertaken by those who support same-sex marriage and another by a San Francisco TV station show that Californians now favor ending same-sex marriage by a margin of 47-42, a reversal from just a few weeks ago. (Read "Why Gay Marriage Was Defeated in California.")

In that light, it's fortunate, in a way, that only one more state supreme court is slated to consider same-sex marriage any time soon. The court in Iowa will hear arguments on the issue in December. Gays will now have to focus on winning marriage equality politically, in legislatures. A good place to start is New York. Currently the New York senate is held by the Republicans with a spare 32-29 majority (there is one vacancy). If the Democrats can pick up just three seats, they will win control of the Senate. The party is expected to pass same-sex marriage legislation if it takes the Senate — it already holds the State Assembly — and Governor David Paterson has said he would sign it.

This explains why gay donors around the country are pouring money into a few key state senate races in New York. If they are successful, they will help win same-sex marriage for New Yorkers without our having to beg for equality from judges who take pity on how glum our lives are. If gays can help win in New York, we will prove that the Connecticut justices are right about marriage but wrong about gay political power.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

See the Cartoons of the Week.