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The Nation

Gays Engaged in a Battle for Hearts, Minds

After a string of setbacks on same-sex marriage, activists are trying to get the public to see that their family matters are much like anyone else's.

July 26, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Most Americans clearly support reserving marriage for heterosexual couples. Ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage have passed overwhelmingly in 20 states. National polls show support for gay marriage at no more than 39%.

But activists are well aware that Americans are far more likely to support specific gay-rights measures if they know someone who identifies as gay or lesbian. That's why they're trying to encourage more same-sex parents -- a population they estimate at 6 million or more -- to come out.

Even before the recent court rulings, "marriage ambassadors" had started to speak at union halls in New York, meet with black pastors in New Jersey and attend Latino political gatherings in California. In Missouri, same-sex couples invited the media to profile them as they pushed for the right to take in foster children. Gay-rights leaders promise many more such initiatives in the months ahead.

"It's our challenge to get people thinking about how we have all types of families in our communities and how it's not beneficial to society to recognize and protect some families and not others," said Toni Broaddus, who leads the Equality Federation, an umbrella organization for gay-rights groups.

From a legal standpoint, the gay community also plans to step up efforts to ensure that gay and lesbian couples are treated -- in every respect outside of marriage -- like their heterosexual counterparts.

That strategy won two victories recently in conservative states. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to raise foster children. And the University of Louisville became the first public college in Kentucky to offer health benefits to domestic partners.

In more liberal California, activists have spent years laying groundwork for equal treatment of gay and lesbian couples. The state offers a domestic partnership that in many ways is equivalent to marriage. It also automatically grants both partners in a same-sex couple parental rights if they're raising children.

This presumption of equality for gay families has put California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer in an awkward position as he defends traditional marriage in a lawsuit before a state appeals court.

The plaintiffs, 12 same-sex couples, are seeking marriage licenses. Lockyer can't rely on the procreation argument that prevailed in New York and Nebraska because California law so clearly recognizes and protects gay parents. Instead, he has defended traditional marriage on the grounds that it's traditional.

Analysts on both sides call that argument weak and await the appeals court ruling -- due by October -- with interest.

"The general lesson to be learned is that it's important to build a foundation" for treating gay parents equally "and do a lot of public education," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "We have to make sure the courts are not thinking about gay and lesbian people for the first time when they make a marriage decision."

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