Last edited: January 06, 2005

Gay-Rights Debate Painted in Myriad Shades of Gray

Seattle Times, July 6, 2003
P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111
Fax: 206-382-6760

By Janet I. Tu, Seattle Times staff reporter

When the U.S. Supreme Court made its recent decision to decriminalize gay sex, publicized reactions were swift and decisive.

On television and in newspapers and magazines, activists cheered and many gays and lesbians celebrated. At the other end of the ideological divide, supporters of traditional family values expressed dismay.

What was barely seen or heard was a fuller spectrum of opinions—and the nuances and ambivalence felt not just by the broad middle but by those at either end of that spectrum.

A recent Gallup Poll showed, for example, that while a majority of Americans—59 percent—believe homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, 52 percent also believe that such relations are morally wrong.

“Many Americans—mainly heterosexual Americans—have personal discomfort about homosexuality. But when it comes to civil liberties, civil rights, Americans are pretty strongly supportive that gay people should be treated the same as heterosexuals,” said Gregory Herek, a University of California, Davis, psychology professor who specializes in research on sexual prejudice.

In recent weeks, several watershed decisions have focused attention on homosexuality.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Texas’s anti-sodomy law was unconstitutional, thereby invalidating states’ anti-sodomy laws and declaring gay sex legal and private.

Two weeks before that, an appeals court in Ontario ruled that Canada’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional.

And just last week, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, added gay and lesbian employees to its list of those covered under its anti-bias policy, becoming the ninth of the top-10 Fortune 500 companies to do so.

“There has been a huge growth in acceptance over the last 30 years,” said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociology professor who has written extensively about gender and sexuality. “Most people believe in equality and civil rights. ... But people are used to tradition, and fear the consequences of changing it.”

A sin, but not a crime

That could be said of the very institutions that have traditionally set standards for personal and societal morality—churches.

The Rev. Joe Fuiten, senior pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell, spoke against the Supreme Court decision in his sermon three days after the ruling. It was “a terrible decision,” he said, partly because the court overstepped its bounds and partly because “it gives governmental approval to sinful behavior.”

But, while there is no doubt in Fuiten’s mind that homosexuality is viewed as a sin in the Bible, he adds: “I don’t see why homosexuality needs to be criminalized.”

“I’m no more troubled by it than I am by alcoholism or adultery. Do I preach against it as a sin? Yes. But I’m OK with it not being a crime because I don’t think you can criminalize every sin. Nor is there a need to.”

Herek said, “A lot of people draw the line and say: ‘This is something I think is personally wrong, but I don’t think there should be laws about it or discriminate against people who engage in that practice.’”

For some mainline Protestant denominations, the nuances most hotly debated now revolve around the role openly gay people should play in church leadership.

Last month in New Hampshire, an openly gay man was elected bishop for the first time in Episcopal Church history, something conservatives within the denomination have vowed to fight.

In Seattle, the Very Rev. Robert Taylor at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, and the Rev. Mark Williams at Woodland Park United Methodist Church, both openly gay, have faced opposition within their denominations.

Many mainline Protestant denominations welcome gay men and lesbians to fellowship but do not allow them to be ordained unconditionally.

Gay marriages vs. civil unions

Both gay activists and proponents of traditional family values have said the Supreme Court ruling would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriages.

Cases challenging the illegality of such marriages are already pending before courts in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

“Our community needs and deserves, as immediately as possible, equal rights regarding marriage,” said Cindy Hadden, a local leader of Soulforce, a national interfaith gay-rights group.

The thought makes some apoplectic.

“The institution of marriage between one man and one woman is the very foundation of society,” declared the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

In Congress, a proposal supported by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist would ban gay marriage. Thirty-seven states and the federal government have adopted “defense of marriage” acts, which define marriage as applying only to a man and a woman, according to Newsweek.

But on this issue, too, there are shades of gray.

“I think there are a lot of folks out there who would say they wouldn’t make any kind of beef about the homosexual lifestyle, yet they would go to the mat over the whole issue of marriage and what that means,” said Dave Urban, a spokesman with Families Northwest, a nonprofit group in Bellevue that advocates for strong nuclear families.

Polls have consistently shown that about 60 percent of Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage, said Herek, the UC Davis professor. But the divide is much closer—a recent Gallup Poll showed an even split—on support for civil unions or other arrangements that would give same-sex couples some of the same legal benefits as married couples.

“Clearly a distinction is made by some people,” said Herek. “I think it boils down to the term ‘marriage,’ the idea that marriage has a strong religious component and tradition to it.”

Richard Astley, a 66-year-old retired accountant in Seattle, says, “If you look at marriage as religious, as procreation—then (gays) wouldn’t qualify. But I think as long as you’re looking at it as a legal union and protecting the rights of a couple together, I don’t have a problem with it.”

Some same-sex couples also draw a distinction over the word marriage.

Seven years ago the Rev. Karen Dammann, a local United Methodist pastor, and her partner of eight years, held a “sacred union” ceremony, which confers no legal rights. Two years ago, they went to Vermont for a civil union. While that state’s civil unions confer the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, those rights are not necessarily recognized outside of Vermont.

Dammann would love to be able to marry, not just because of the respect and sacredness that would give their union but more importantly the legal rights it would confer: health insurance for her partner, visitation rights in hospitals that limit such rights to immediate family members.

“I don’t care what you call it,” Dammann said. “I don’t need to call it ‘marriage.’ But I want the protection and the benefits.”

Still other gay couples question whether marriage, as a cultural norm of the majority, is something they want at all.

Peter Crook, 45, a Seattle actor who’s been in a committed relationship for nine years, strongly supports equal rights for committed same-sex couples as for married couples. But it bothers him that “there’s still an implied judgment (with marriage) that the straight way is the right way.

“If heterosexuals say that gay marriages are fine—well, fine and good. But it’s not necessary that I have all my straight friends accept my marriage, or have all my gay friends go out and get married.”

Not a hot issue for voters

At the same time that many Americans personally are ambivalent about homosexuality, society as a whole has become more accepting. A result in the political world is that some outspoken organizations are more cautious.

Rick Forcier, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington, acknowledges that speaking out against homosexuality is tougher than it was 20 years ago. And he worries that, “There’s a tendency among younger Christians not to be concerned about the issue at all.”

Indeed, polls show the percentage of Americans who consider homosexuality acceptable has climbed over the years, particularly in the past decade.

Between 1973 and 1993, surveys generally showed that two-thirds of Americans considered homosexuality to be “always wrong.” But now a majority of Americans—54 percent—believe that homosexuality is “an acceptable alternative lifestyle,” according to a Gallup Poll.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it at all,” said Pushpa Jayaraman, 26, who was shocked three years ago when she moved to Seattle from India and saw a lesbian couple kissing. Now she supports the Supreme Court decision and legalization of gay marriage.

For Forcier, that’s meant his group no longer takes a lead on issues regarding gay rights. “We’re not on a campaign to rid the nation of homosexuals. If asked, we’ll share our thoughts.”

Politically, pushing an aggressive anti-gay-rights or pro-gay-rights agenda isn’t going to work for any candidate, said Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party.

“I think voters would reject candidates who seem fixated on this issue from either side. If you’re someone who stands up and says, ‘I’m running for the Legislature because I want to promote gay marriage,’ you’re going to lose. If you’re a candidate on the other side, saying, ‘I’m running for the Legislature because I want to reimpose sodomy laws in the state of Washington,’ you’re going to lose.”

Voters nationwide are concerned primarily about the economy and national security. State voters are more worried about education, transportation, the economy and health care, Vance said.

Gay rights “is not a nonissue,” he said. But “it’s not the issue that is uppermost in voters’ minds.”

And even as American society becomes more accepting of homosexuality, there is still much—individually and institutionally—that remains gray.

“A lot of people are just comfortable with homosexuality—it’s no big deal. For others, it is a big deal if their friends come out,” said Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture and media at Syracuse University.

“For still others, they may be comfortable with gay friends and co-workers, but when their own children come out ... There’s a whole spectrum of things that are still being negotiated.”

  • Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272

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