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February 27, 2004

Defending Kerry on Gay Marriage

Some folks like Kos are slamming Kerry for supporting civil unions but not gay marriage in Massachusetts.

Fair enough. but the cold reality is that if Kerry came out for gay marriage, he won't win in November. Period.

So you can have a candidate who promotes gay marriage, or you can get Bush out of office. That's the choice.

Now, it's perfectly respectable to believe that losing on principle is better than winning on compromise in order to promote a broader agenda in the long term.

But given the stakes in this election, including for gay rights, Kerry would be the enemy of gay rights if he announced his support for gay marriage, since he would help assure George Bush's reelection.

Kerry's Position: Instead, he opposes the FMA, supports civil unions with all benefits from marriage, and argues for promoting national laws barring discrimination in employment. And he supports an amendment in Mass that would support civil unions with all rights of marriage, while yes banning the use of the word marriage for gay unions.

Michael Harrington, a leader for decades of the left Democratic Socialists of America, once said that his goal was to vigorously promote "the left wing of the possible." My political goals are far to the left of John Kerry on multiple issues, but I don't expect him to embrace any issue that will doom his candidacy-- I'd rather have someone who will promote civil unions and employment non-discrimination for gays.

As for gay marriage, the culture is moving in our direction and passing strong civil unions are the best first step in that direction.

Judges Undermining the Movement: Unfortunately, the judicial activism of state courts have repeatedly set back that movement in political terms and in an anti-democratic way overstepped the "leftwing of the possible." The country wasn't ready when Hawaii's Supreme Court declared that gay marriage was required under that state's constitution.

The result was the federal Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) and state laws, and a few state constitutional amendments, banning gay marriage or recognition of other states' recognition of gay marriage. And Hawaii of course changed its state's constitution, undermining the results of the state supreme court decision.

Some may argue that the debate advanced gay rights, but gay rights had been steadily making gains without that divisive debate that changed the subject from human dignity to a populist denunciation of judicial power.

With the Massachusetts high court requiring gay marriage, the result could be even worse. A compromise Federal Marriage Amendment could end up being approved that would make it nearly impossible for decades, even if some states approve gay marriage, for gay married people to receive federal benefits or have their union recognized in other states.

The Backlash: And already, many states are debating state constitutional amendments to make gay marriage laws impossible to pass in the future:

Only four states have enacted amendments concerning same-sex marriage, but nearly two dozen are now considering enshrining prohibitions in state constitutions, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group that tracks such legislation.
The reality is that the legacy of the Massachusetts court decision may well be an additional delay of years and possibly decades for gay marriage in many states, since in the future, mere legislative majorities won't be enough to enact gay marriage. Instead, new constitutional amendments will be necessary in many states to move gay marriage forward in the future.

My defining politics is that I am quite radical in what I believe, often willing to support pretty militant tactics to promote an issue, but in the end very pragmatic in moving forward policy in incremental steps.

Advocates for gay marriage should continue to push hard for their viewpoints, but that is a separate issue from wanting Kerry to participate in reelecting George W. Bush to another term. And the radical position is not to promote anything that seems positive in the moment without worry about backlash or the entrenchment of bad policies into the future.

The radical position is the one that achieves victory for human rights as broadly and as quickly as possible.

A Compromise to Advance Dignity?: The reality is that a strong Massachusetts amendment approved by the state legislature that supports full civil unions while banning gay marriage may be the best thing possible for the gay marriage movement. It still would have to be reapproved in two years by the state legislature, where it could then hopefully be defeated, or be defeated at the polls in 2006.

And if that compromise defuses other bad constitutional amendments in the rest of the country or at the national level, that would be a good thing.

Maybe that's not the right strategy; maybe a more militant strategy would be more successful. But given that the Hawaii decision gave us DOMA, strategic compromise in Massachusetts that would advance civil unions in that state while lessening backlash elsewhere is a reasonable position to advance justice.

Update: BTW I am very in favor of San Francisco's civil disobediance issuing of marriage licenses; all the happy couples getting married is great propaganda for the issue. They'll get shut down by the courts eventually, but that's the point-- it's a populist action driven by an elected leader who will be shut down by the courts. I thinks it far better for progressive forces to be on the side of rebellion against the courts, rather than using the courts as a weapon.

Posted by Nathan at February 27, 2004 06:16 AM