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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Love (and Civil Rights) Has Everything to Do With It

June 28, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The bride wore blue jeans.

So, as a matter of fact, did the other bride.

And, as they held each other tight, swaying across the dance floor after the toast, they didn't look anything like the Antichrist to me--just a couple of love-smitten lesbians who would like nothing more than to plight their troth the old-fashioned way: with a blood test, a band of gold and marriage certificate.

That modest desire could come to pass if Hawaii becomes the first state in the Union to sanction same-sex marriages.

If that happens, the world can thank (among others) the dancing couple--Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel--who sued the Hawaii Department of Health in 1991 after it refused to issue a marriage license to the love-struck duo.

They were feted at a West Hollywood restaurant last week during a fund-raiser for Freedom to Marry, a new coalition of gay rights groups.

It was a real family values moment, something you'd find a lot of in West Hollywood if your idea of family isn't crippled by rigid and outmoded definitions.

*

Two years ago, to the shock of some and delight of others, Hawaii's Supreme Court opened the door to the possibility of legalized gay marriage when it ruled, in Baehr vs. Lewin, that prohibiting gays from marrying amounts to sex discrimination under the Hawaiian constitution.

The court compared laws restricting same-sex marriage to those prohibiting interracial marriage (ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago). It sent the case back to a lower court for a retrial.

If the prohibition against gay marriage is to stand, the court said, Hawaii must show compelling reasons why such discrimination is allowable.

Hawaiian legislators took on the challenge, passing a law stating that marriage can only occur between a man and woman, and that procreation is the socially compelling reason to discriminate against gays.

Gay rights activists have an answer for that one: What about straights who don't have kids? they ask. What about George and Martha Washington? Or Dr. Seuss?

The delicious part of the case for marriage-minded gay men and women is that, since states are bound to respect each other's official acts, a gay marriage in Hawaii should theoretically be recognized as valid in California, in New York or even, God forbid, in Utah (which rushed a law against recognizing gay marriage onto the books after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling).

The Baehr vs. Lewin case will come to trial in Honolulu in September, with a decision expected late next year or in early 1997. In the meantime, Baehr and Dancel, both 35 and now living in Baltimore, are making the most of their status as the country's most famous thwarted gay spouses.

*

The Freedom to Marry movement is not about securing religious rights, but civil rights. The issue is whether states, not churches, will sanction gay marriage.

Over the last dozen or so years, more than 30 municipalities--including Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Laguna Beach--have adopted "domestic partner" laws, but the rights accorded by such registries are largely symbolic.

Legal marriage would allow a gay couple to file a joint tax return, to obtain joint insurance policies, to inherit automatically in the absence of a will, to enter jointly into leases, to obtain status as next-of-kin when a partner is incapacitated.

Last week's fund-raiser was the launch party for Freedom to Marry, which hopes to educate the public on an issue that has been described by New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan as "the critical measure necessary for full gay equality."

The idea, says attorney Amelia Craig of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, is to win "the hearts and minds" of the American people on this issue because, she says, "When we win, there will be a backlash."

It has already begun.

"This is a major issue for all our supporters," the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition told a Los Angeles Times reporter in March. What gays really want, he said, "is acceptance and that's something we can't give to them."

Fortunately, the issue is in the hands of the courts, not conservative Christians.

If Hawaii does the right thing, mainland gays can pack up their wedding rings, make tracks for the islands and bid aloha to Rev. Lou.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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