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Sunday, November 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Election devastates gay community

By Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press

DEBORAH COLEMAN / GETTY IMAGES
Jason Proctor, left, and Steve Reynolds, both from Burlingame, Calif., were married by Deputy Marriage Commissioner Bill Jones in San Francisco City Hall last February.
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For gays, it was hard not to take this election personally.

An overwhelming majority in 11 states — red and blue — voted to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriage and, in eight of those states, any legal protections for gay couples and their children. This after a summer of jubilation with gay couples in matching tuxedos and white gowns emerging from courthouses in several states waving at the cameras, weeping with joy. It was in that historic but fleeting moment that gay Americans glimpsed the possibilities of mainstream acceptance.

But that notion proved to be far more radical to many Americans than most gays ever dreamed. Optimism suddenly was replaced with a devastating sense of alienation, betrayal, sadness, fear, even confusion. This election showed that America, at its core, isn't ready to embrace them as equals.

"It's getting harder and harder to live in a country where you're considered by the majority of the people to be a scourge rather than an asset," said Seattle resident Eric Thom, who married his partner in a Canadian ceremony and plans to move to British Columbia because of the election. "We are tearing down Western civilization, according to these states."

Exit polls offer a stark picture of the results. Voters in Arkansas (by 75 percent), Georgia (76), Kentucky (75), Michigan (59), Mississippi (86), Montana (67), North Dakota (73), Ohio (62), Oklahoma (76), Oregon (57) and Utah (by 66 percent) approved constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. Political analysts believe the issue was so volatile that, according to estimates, it boosted voter turnout significantly in all but two of these states — Oregon and Utah.

A position to rally around

Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, the state that set off the firestorm in November when its high court ruled that gay couples have the right to wed, is among many political observers who credit the anti-gay marriage amendments with giving Bush's conservative base a reason to go to the polls in crucial states such as Ohio.

"I think it hurt," Frank said.

"It gives them a position to rally around," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who once served as San Francisco's mayor. "That whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon. People aren't ready for it."

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force denies that gay marriage alone boosted turnout in Oregon, Ohio and Michigan, the three swing states where constitutional amendments were on the ballot. Bush voters also were motivated by the president's stands on abstinence-only sex education and a ban on late-term abortions, said Matthew Foreman, the group's executive director.

"It's sickening and fascinating that when one in five voters said 'moral values' was the most important issue for them, pundits immediately equated that with gay marriage alone," Foreman said. "To pin all of this on 'the gays' is wrong."

The reaction in the gay community was swift and emotional: Across the country, many gays spoke about leaving the United States, reviving last-resort plans to move to Canada, where gay unions are recognized in all but four provinces and two territories, and the Netherlands, where gay marriage is legal.

Atlanta resident Marci Alt said she, her pregnant partner, Marlysa, and Alt's 10-year-old son are headed to Amsterdam. Nearly 20 years ago, Alt founded the Gay Community Yellow Pages, an 18-state business directory targeting gay communities. She and her partner were among the thousands of people to marry last spring and, although Georgia doesn't recognize gay marriages, they spent six months setting up their domestic partnership. They also worked hard to rally support for gay marriage in their community. Then, on election night, they cried as they watched Georgia vote not only to ban gay marriage but to deny couples the right to civil unions as well.

"When I saw only 700,000 people voted against the amendment, it was devastating to me," she said. "I've been working for 17 years in Atlanta against discrimination. Not only is it not better, it's worse than it was when I started."

In the days after the election, many gays coped by firing off angry e-mails to friends and relatives, blaming Bush and his conservative supporters for using religion to defend bigotry, motivating voters to make gay marriage a "moral issue." They circulated a map of North America with everything but Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the West Coast labeled "Jesusland." And they asked how TV shows that mock the sanctity of marriage, such as "The Bachelor" and "Wife Swap," can be tolerated by most Americans but committed gay relationships cannot.

"I keep thinking, 'Why are they picking on us?' " gay New Mexico economics professor Sue Stockly wrote in one e-mail. "For 'man to lie down with man' is 'abomination,' but so is eating shrimp. Why aren't shrimp-eaters denied legal rights?"

Gays in large liberal cities felt particularly isolated by the election results because few experience such passionate opposition to their lifestyles in their communities. (In California, a newly expanded domestic-partner law, which goes into effect in January, will grant registered gay couples most of the same legal protections as married couples.)

"Frankly, I feel like a second-class citizen at the rear of the bus and I've just been spit on by many self-righteous, intolerant, ignorant, redneck, so-called compassionate, Christian bullies!" gay native Arkansan Mark Jackson, who now lives in New York, wrote in another e-mail.

Some in the community blamed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for providing Republicans the perfect wedge issue to mobilize their evangelical Christian base when he defied state law and issued more than 4,000 marriage licenses to gay couples in March. "I think he jumped the gun a little bit," gay Los Angeles resident Cookie Look said. They say overenthusiastic activists set back the movement — and gay civil rights — by years by insisting on the term "marriage." Nationally, only 4 percent of voters identify themselves as gay.

"I think gay people should be more respectful of other people's beliefs and not forcing their lifestyle and identity," said Mark Oleszek, a gay Wisconsin native who now lives in New York. "They could have obtained the same rights by just using the word 'union' or 'partnership.' "

Frank said he believes the San Francisco same-sex weddings, later found to violate state law, were more damaging than Massachusetts' court-sanctioned nuptials. "Obviously, we paid some price for what we did in Massachusetts," Frank said. "I'm willing to pay a price for a real gain. I wasn't willing to pay a price for a lot of hoopla that didn't accomplish anything."

Newsom won't entertain the notion that his sanctioning of gay marriage is to blame. If anyone wants a scapegoat for John Kerry's loss, he said, they would be better off looking to Osama bin Laden's latest taped missive to the American people.

"If everyone wants to blame me, I'll accept the blame," the 37-year-old Democrat said with sarcasm. "Maybe I'll blame myself as well and I'll have some closure."

Gay activist Jasmyne Cannick, spokeswoman for the National Black Justice Coalition, didn't sleep on election night. Instead, she and her colleagues cried to one another over the phone. After a year on the road spent lecturing black congregations on tolerance for gay marriage, Cannick was exhausted and overwhelmed by the defeat.

"You always would like to think that people are more fair-minded, especially African Americans," said Cannick, who is black and gay. She wondered how blacks "who have been discriminated against for a long time dare even put that same sort of hatred on another group of people." After all, she noted, it wasn't that long ago that most Americans used "abomination" to describe marriage between blacks and whites.

Still, Cannick and other activists tried to see the silver lining. They heralded the election of 40 of the 64 publicly gay candidates who ran in local, state and federal elections. They compared their battle to the decades-long civil-rights struggle of blacks and women.

Court challenge promised

They promised to challenge the marriage bans in court, further publicizing their cause. And they vowed to increase public outreach, to make gay America more visible. Some went so far as to call the initiatives a benefit to the movement. "The subject of gay families is no longer taboo," Massachusetts gay activist Josh Friedes said.

But for most in the gay community, spirits are still quite low. Many recall last summer's celebrations with bitterness. They fault themselves for being naive, for overestimating both their gains and the nation's tolerance.

"Finally, I thought that all the fighting was starting to pay off," Alt said. "It was just a big slap in the face."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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