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Gays See Silver Lining in Senate Votes

September 11, 1996|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What would seem to have been a grim day of defeat for their movement left gay community leaders in Southern California remarkably upbeat.

Yes, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday had approved anti-gay marriage legislation and defeated a bill granting job protections to homosexuals. But senators came surprisingly close to passing the anti-discrimination measure.

"I'm stunned [it] did as well as it did," activist David Mixner said of the 50-49 vote against the gay rights bill.

"I can remember just a few short years back when there were not even 10 co-sponsors in the Senate," he added. "This was an astounding measure of how far the gay and lesbian community has come in being taken seriously as a civil rights movement."

Similarly, Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said that while she was disappointed at the outcome, she was encouraged by the narrow margin. "For the first vote on this bill, I think 49 to 50 is pretty damned good. . . . It makes me very hopeful."

At the same time, gay advocates greeted the overwhelming passage of the marriage legislation with an air of resignation.

"The Defense of Marriage Act was essentially a juggernaut that we had virtually no reasonable expectation of defeating," said West Hollywood City Councilman Steve Martin. "Rather than dwell on that, we can look at the fact that we finally got some national recognition for the need for protection for gays and lesbians in the workplace. And that's a step forward."

Indeed, passing anti-discrimination measures has been much higher on the list of gay rights goals than marriage.

Although Martin said the consensus on marriage is growing in the gay community, it has not been a priority. And some activists question the wisdom of pursuing the issue when sodomy remains illegal in a number of states.

Were it not for a Hawaii court case, the topic would probably not even be on the national radar screen.

That trial, which got underway Tuesday, could result in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Hawaii, a possibility that has prompted a wave of preemptive legislation at both the national and state levels.

Along with the Defense of Marriage Act, 15 states have approved measures designed to head off recognition of same-sex marriages, setting the stage for years of legal challenges by gay couples if same-sex marriage becomes a reality in Hawaii.

Similar legislation has failed in 20 states, including California.

In anticipation of the Hawaii court ruling, conservative lawmakers in Sacramento pushed two bills this year that would have prevented recognition in California of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

Neither made it to Gov. Pete Wilson's desk. Each passed in the Republican-run Assembly only to die in the Democratic-majority state Senate.

One proposal was withdrawn by its author, Republican Assemblyman William J. "Pete" Knight of Palmdale, after the Senate voted to add an amendment that would have recognized certain rights for "domestic partners," including gay men and lesbians.

(Knight, apparently fearing that a Bay Area newspaper was about to run the story, disclosed Tuesday that his son is gay. Story, B3)

A second bill, similar to Knight's, by Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), was bottled up in committee, where it died Aug. 31 on the last night of the legislative session.

Times staff writer Max Vanzi in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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