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Existing gay marriages now on a great divide

March 07, 2009|Maura Dolan and Jessica Garrison

Jeanne Rizzo, 62, who married her partner of 20 years in September, was "somewhat heartened" Friday that her marriage is poised to survive Proposition 8 -- but she was not celebrating.

"We don't want to be on a marriage island," said the Marin County resident, who runs a health advocacy group.

The California Supreme Court's signal Thursday that it would uphold Proposition 8 but still recognize 18,000 existing same-sex marriages raised questions and concerns about the prospect of being a minority within a minority -- part of an exclusive club whose doors have been closed to others.

While some gay married couples fretted Friday about being isolated culturally and legally, others expressed relief and joy that their marriages would remain valid. Some said they would feel pressure to be a symbol for same-sex marriage and to always present a positive image.

"If I'm on an island, at least I'm on an island with someone I love," said Howard Bragman, a Hollywood publicist who married his partner before the November election in which voters passed the gay-marriage ban.

Jon Davidson, legal director for the gay-rights advocacy group Lambda Legal, called the couples "pioneers" put into "an unprecedented situation."

"It will be challenging for those 18,000 couples," Davidson said. "They are likely to be frequently asked to prove that they are married. . . . They will be going forward where no couple has gone before."

At the same time, the gay married couples may help educate Americans about same-sex marriage, Davidson said.

"They will be kind of living examples of the fact that no one else is harmed by the existence of married same-sex couples," he said.

Some couples felt their isolation as soon as it became clear Thursday how the state high court was likely to rule.

Rizzo said her gay sister-in-law told her, "You got married, and I can't."

"It is not going to be satisfying to say we got ours but you can't have yours," Rizzo said.

Gay couples who register with the state as domestic partners will have virtually the same rights as the married minority, but the unique situation of the married couples will probably create confusion, Davidson said.

The longer the state has no marriage rights for gays, the odder the same-sex married couples may seem to others, he said, adding, "It will be a strange situation."

Gay-rights activists said Friday that they would try to overturn the marriage ban in a future statewide election but conceded they might not be ready by the 2010 ballot or even 2012.

Some activists fear a parade of future initiatives that would grant marriage rights one year and take them away in another, making the issue a political battleground for a decade or more.

To avoid that, some activists would prefer to wait until they are likely to receive overwhelming support from voters, which would signal to their opponents that the battle had been won.

To that end, a group called Courage Campaign is hosting "Equality Camps" around the state to train activists in grass-roots organizing and teach them to reach out to neighbors and co-workers. The first camp was held in January, and another is planned for this weekend.

Rick Jacobs, head of Courage Campaign, said he wants to go back to the ballot "as soon as possible within the context of smart politics."

"We have to take advantage of this huge surge in grass-roots interest," he said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage said Friday that they, too, were preparing for another round at the ballot.

Frank Schubert, who led the Yes on 8 campaign, said his group might organize to teach voters the importance of "traditional marriage" and counter the gay-rights message.

Just as gay-rights activists are holding training camps, Schubert said his group might recommend marriage encounter weekends run by churches to emphasize "the importance of marriage in society."

Gay-marriage opponents argued that the existing marriages should no longer be recognized by the state and said they were puzzled that the court appeared almost certain to uphold them. But they were uncertain whether the presence of relatively few same-sex marriages would matter much.

"It's hard to tell the impact that 18,000 couples will have on a state the size of California," Schubert said.

Gay-rights activists said their plans may become clearer after the California Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8, expected within 90 days. The court's likely decision to uphold the marriage ban may stir even more people to volunteer their time and money for another campaign, the activists said.

Nicole Wolf, 33, who married her partner of 10 years last year, said she was "really excited" that her marriage would survive but called Proposition 8 "heartbreaking" for others.

"Just the fact that others can't marry is disgusting to me," said Wolf, an Alameda County office manager.

In a Highland Park cafe Friday morning, Vanessa Godson and her wife, Julie Halverson-Godson, drank coffee, played with their son, Graham, and talked about the pressure of being part of a highly exclusive club.

"We will be scrutinized. . . . We are going to be a little scientific sample group," Godson said. "I feel a sense of responsibility to show to people that gay marriage can be as healthy, productive, supportive and loving as any straight marriage."

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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