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Encircled by their feelings

The son of the state's leading opponent of gay marriage weds his partner in San Francisco with a symbolic ring.

March 10, 2004|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The diamond in the ring he held had been passed down by his father. So had his bearing, the stance of a former fighter pilot and Gulf War veteran.

But it was the painful distance between father and son that stood at the fore as David Knight, the gay son of California's leading opponent of same-sex marriage, wed his longtime partner here on Tuesday.

"I'm not here to confront my father; I'm here to confront his politics," the son of Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) said carefully. He did not want to hurt his 75-year-old parent, he said, but neither could he "just hide from him."

The middle son of the conservative author of Proposition 22, which defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman, David Knight, now a 43-year-old woodworker, and Joseph Lazzaro, a 39-year-old specialist in interior architecture, kissed and held hands as they were pronounced "spouses for life" under the landmark rotunda where more than 3,600 gay and lesbian couples have married since Feb. 12.

The two men, partners for 10 years, live in Baltimore and had a civil union ceremony two years ago in Vermont. But, they said, they felt compelled to travel to Knight's home state when San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples last month.

In a wave of civil disobedience that the elder Knight has denounced as a "sham" and a "sideshow," gays and lesbians have been married in New Mexico, New York and Oregon, in addition to the ceremonies here that have been solemnized in defiance of state law.

Tuesday's ceremony, conducted at City Hall by a deputy marriage commissioner who gasped, "How brave, how marvelous," when he was told afterward who the younger Knight was, lent an intensely personal footnote to a highly public issue. Though many parents struggle when they learn that a child is gay or lesbian, most families work through such issues in private. The powerful rift between politician and son, however, has for several years now been a poignant subtext to California's same-sex marriage debate.

Sen. Knight, who represents a solidly conservative Republican district, became nationally famous as the driving force behind Proposition 22 -- or the "Knight initiative," as it was colloquially known -- which passed with more than 61% of the vote four years ago. His well-funded Proposition 22 Defense and Education Fund has since gone to court to challenge San Francisco's decision to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.

"I love my son, but we continue to disagree on this issue," the senator said in a prepared statement, adding that he would not comment further on what he deems "a personal family matter."

Though the elder Knight lost a gay brother to AIDS in 1996 -- the year his son told him of his sexual orientation -- he has said he sees it as his responsibility to prevent acceptance of homosexuality in society's mainstream.

"They want to be visible; they want to be accepted as normal people living a lifestyle that should be accepted as normal. That's the problem. If they weren't pushing so hard to be out and accepted, I don't think anybody would care," the senator told The Times in a 1999 interview.

Last month, in separate comments, he referred to same-sex marriage as "the biggest public policy issue since slavery" and expressed outrage that the issue will probably be decided not at the ballot box but in the courts.

David Knight, whose mother died when he was young, said he had struggled with the decision to join the gay wedding march in San Francisco, and dragged his feet when Lazzaro suggested they fly west last month.

"I have my own business. I don't like to just up and leave everything hanging. We weren't sure if we'd get in, or if it would all be shut down," he said. "And it does stir up some of the old emotions from four years ago."

Once close -- the son had joined the Air Force to emulate his father, a record-setting test pilot -- the two men scarcely spoke after David Knight came out. At the time, a series of seizures had ended his career as a pilot and, liberated, he had told his father about his sexual orientation. When he brought Lazzaro to dinner one subsequent Thanksgiving, the attempt elicited an icy rejection, he said, calling it "one of the most excruciating and painful events any of us had ever gone through."

The rift worsened in 1999 during the Proposition 22 campaign, when the Knight family's private angst entered the public record. As anti-gay rhetoric intensified, David Knight published an Opinion page essay in The Times criticizing his father's initiative as "a blind, uncaring, uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing."

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