The invitations are sent. The rings are bought. There's tears as the vows are read, a kiss, and the couple awkwardly feeds each other a slice of the wedding cake. Gifts aren't requested, but they come in droves — a practical cutlery set, a waffle maker that will get pulled out about once a year, and two George Foreman grills. There's even a commemorative CD with, to no surprise, "At Last" and "How Sweet It Is." There's hardly a thing nontraditional about the event — except that it's two guys getting hitched.
It's stories like these that are scaring social conservatives — be it the weddings or civil unions in other states or the awkwardly-named and already legally unrecognizable commitment ceremonies in South Carolina. On Nov. 7, it'll be up to voters in South Carolina to determine if it's scary enough to change the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage or recognition of any relationship that isn't a marriage between a man and a woman.
Movement on gay marriage, both for it and against it, took off after the Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 2003. Suddenly social conservatives realized that if these gay people were given the right to do what they wanted in their bedrooms, they might want other rights — like marriage.
Massachusetts was the first state to introduce gay marriage and, while six other states now recognize same-sex relationships, 20 have approved amendments prohibiting marriage or the benefits of marriage to gay couples.
South Carolina was a late bloomer, but the legislature gave overwhelming and bipartisan support to the referendum question in 2005. But what's curious is that the state already has a clear law against gay marriage: "A marriage between persons of the same sex is void ab initio and against the public policy of this state." Other than the Latin in the middle, which is translated as "from the beginning," it's clear this ship has sailed. If you're gay and looking to get married, look somewhere else.
Conservatives warn that the state law could be challenged without an amendment. But gays and their supporters contend an amendment would write discrimination into the state constitution for the first time in 100 years, the last time being an amendment to prohibit interracial marriage that was passed in 1895 and finally repealed in 1998.
"Everyone matters," says Warren Redman-Gress, director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), a Charleston advocacy group that coordinates diversity training and regional media campaigns on gay and lesbian issues. "Every family matters, regardless of whether they're gay or straight."
AFFA and other groups, including the South Carolina Equality Coalition and the Log Cabin Republicans, are campaigning against the measure with TV and radio ads, billboards, and mailings. Of the eight states with ballot questions this November, South Carolina seems a better bet than most to approve the amendment, but gay rights groups are hopeful for victories in other states, including Wisconsin, Arizona, and Virginia.
Redman-Gress, in a 21-year relationship with his partner, Jim, is still hopeful.
"We're going to see a lot more support than people ever expected," he says. "I really am confident in that. Are we going to win? I don't know. Are we going to be able to stop this steamroller? I'm not really sure. I think we're going to find an incredible amount of support along the way."
Big Gay Deal
It's not a fight about special rights for gays, it's about equal rights for all couples, says Steve Lepre, co-owner of Sunhead Projects with his partner of 15 years.
"Eisenhower said, 'There shall be no second-class citizens in this country,'" he says. "We're talking about a marriage license. We get a license to fish, to drive, to own a business, and none have restrictions on sexuality. What's next, gay people can't own guns?"
While trying to beat back gays from committing themselves to each other, the Bush Administration has been doing what it can to encourage straight couples to tie the knot by highlighting studies that show married couples are happier and healthier than unmarried couples and by listing the legal benefits of marriage.
In 1996, the General Accounting Office was asked by Congress to list those benefits tied to marriage. They ended up with more than 1,000 federal and about 400 state regulations where marriage applies. The benefits include:
• Joint parenting, adoption, and foster care, including custody and visitation for non-biological parents
• Social Security survivor benefits
• Medicare, food stamp, and affordable housing assistance
• Medical care for spouses of veterans and pension benefits and educational assistance for survivors
• 179 tax provisions including the tax-free transfer of property between spouses
• Leave from work to care for a sick or injured spouse or child
• Survivorship benefits for spouses of public safety workers and other professionals
• Rights for immigrants who are spouses of American citizens
• Opportunity to file for bankruptcy jointly and other debt protection
• Renewal and termination rights for a surviving spouse regarding copyrighted material
• Conflict of interest clauses relating to spouses and judicial protections
Some of these benefits can work for or against a married couple, depending on the circumstances. For instance, a spouse's income and credit history can help or hurt a loan application and conflicts of interest are hardly ever a good thing. Sometimes rights immediately available to married couples can be massaged for partners through lawyers, but it's never a concrete solution, Redman-Gress says.
"We've jumped through dozens of hoops with attorneys to protect our assets with each other and our child," he says. "There are a half-dozen attorneys who have told us that, regardless of what you put into a will, a probate court judge is not going to necessarily insure that is going to happen."
Ken Hubbard, one of five children of a single mother, notes that the amendment could hurt single parents or other alternative families. The amendment would also impact common-law marriages, Hubbard notes.
"What this amendment doesn't tell you is that this is all about families," Hubbard says. "How are you going to let them define who your family is? They're going to tell us that we all must have 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, and a Volvo sitting in the yard. I'm sorry. I don't want that."
While benefits of marriage will be kept from gays regardless of what happens in November, there's very real concern about how the outcome in November will affect gay and lesbian families. When the "sanctity of marriage" line started losing its punch for middle America, the conservatives began going a different route, claiming the number one concern is protecting children. The argument goes that if gays want to get married, the next thing you know, they'll want kids, and that's just not healthy.
But gays and lesbians are already parenting and are being recognized for their good works. Redman-Gress notes that Charleston County's foster parent of the year in 2003 was a gay man and that a lesbian couple were the runners-up in 2001.
When it comes to gay parents, Redman-Gress notes his personal interest as an adoptive parent of his six-year-old son. Because the state doesn't recognize same-sex partnerships in adoptions, Redman-Gress is considered his son's sole parent.
"Jim and our son are legal strangers according to the state," he says.
Those partners who aren't legal parents have to carry documentation everywhere that gives them responsibility for emergency care for their child, one of the many rights granted to straight couples who can adopt together. And though his family is supportive of his relationship, Redman-Gress notes that some families could fight for custody if the legal parent dies and the court could take the child away.
The very fact that gays can adopt children could be the next issue that conservatives seek to bar.
"Many people expect that, once the amendment passes, we'll be fighting prohibitions against gays and lesbians being foster parents and adopting in this state," he says. "The amendment is going to give that renewed interest."
These types of initiatives are already seeing interest in other states that have previously approved marriage amendments, says Carrie Evans, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and lesbian advocacy group.
"After Nov. 7, the conservatives will be thinking about the next steps," she says.
Where's The Love?
Though there are likely religious folks who are in this fight with faith-based intentions, there are no doubt opportunistic politicians happily standing beside them.
"We're the favorite whipping boy for one party or another," Redman-Gress says.
What may be most surprising in the battle against the marriage amendment is that the South Carolina Democrats have been largely silent on the issue.
"The South has been a hard nut to crack," says Evans. "We don't see many mainstream politicians openly opposing the amendments."
That may be because they're too busy openly supporting them. Tommy Moore, the Democratic candidate for governor, was a co-sponsor on two Senate bills similar to the House version that led to the amendment.
"(Gays and lesbians) are looking at two candidates for governor and neither one supports them as individuals or thinks that there should be fairness," Redman-Gress says.
Other party officials who do oppose the amendment are hoping they can avoid the question entirely, Redman-Gress says.
"I've been encouraged by members of the leadership of the Democratic Party that we should be quiet about the whole thing," he says.
At a rally at the new Democratic Party headquarters on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard last week, signs opposing the amendment were peppered among the yard signs for various candidates and a few people were wearing "Vote No" buttons. Randy Maatta, the Democratic challenger for the coastal Congressional seat, is one of the few Democratic candidates openly opposed to the amendment.
""I think that any time that you write discrimination into the constitution of the United States or South Carolina it's wrong," Maatta says. "We have laws on the books that prohibit same-sex marriage. To me, it's a ploy by the Republican leadership of Columbia to get their base out."
The lack of more Democratic support doesn't concern Redman-Gress half as much as the necessary support from the gay and lesbian community.
"There are so many gays and lesbians out there that wring their hands and say, 'Well, it's South Carolina. What can you expect?' I'd expect you to stand up and say no," he says, including those gays and lesbians that may still be in the closet. "In the voting booth, no one is looking over your shoulder."
But the campaign expects that, for every gay person, they will need two straight supporters for victory. To help, the alliance is running five TV commercials and is planning mailings to 30,000 area residents. The group has also asked 100 gays and lesbians and their supporters to pen letters opposing the amendment that they will send to about 10,000 people in the area.
AFFA will also be sending special messages to members of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Greenville Chamber that focus on the impacts the bill will have on gay tourism and attracting gay-friendly tech industries to South Carolina.
The pamphlet from AFFA notes Cincinnati lost $46 million and Colorado lost $38 million in convention business following anti-gay measures.
The good news for gay advocates is that this may be the last major battle for statewide marriage amendments, with strong support for gays and lesbians in the other states that haven't faced the amendment question that will require a lot of money and time from conservatives to be successful, Evans says.
"After Nov. 7, about 25 states will have these amendments," she says. "The next 25 are going to be a heavy lift for the anti-gay movement."
If South Carolina's marriage amendment passes in November, the Alliance and other groups will continue educating and fighting for equality for gays and lesbians.
"You feel like you're dealing with high school bullies again, but they graduated and became politicians," Lepre says. "The only way to deal is to push back."
Pushing back would likely begin with an attempt to repeal the amendment, Redman-Gress says.
"That should always be in front of the people. We've written discrimination into the constitution, we have to write it out," he says. —Greg Hambrick
THE PROPOSED AMENDMENT
1. Must Article XVII of the Constitution of this State be amended by adding Section 15 so as to provide that in this State and its political subdivisions, a marriage between one man and one woman is the only lawful domestic union that shall be valid or recognized; that this State and its political subdivisions shall not create, recognize, or give effect to a legal status, right, or claim created by another jurisdiction respecting any other domestic union, however denominated; that this amendment shall not impair any right or benefit extended by the State or its political subdivisions other than a right or benefit arising from a domestic union that is not valid or recognized in this State; and that this amendment shall not prohibit or limit the ability of parties other than the State or its political subdivisions from entering into contracts or other legal instruments?
Yes [ ]
No [ ]
EXPLANATION OF ABOVE:
This amendment provides that the institution of marriage in South Carolina consists only of the union between one man and one woman. No other domestic union is valid and legal. The State and its political subdivisions are prohibited from creating or recognizing any right or claim respecting any other domestic union, whatever it may be called, or from giving effect to any such right or benefit recognized in any other state or jurisdiction.
However, this amendment also makes clear it does not impair rights or benefits extended by this State, or its political subdivisions not arising from other domestic unions, nor does the amendment prohibit private parties from entering into contracts or other legal instruments.