Debate Painted in Myriad Shades of Gray
Times, July 6, 2003
P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111
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
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
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
Many mainline Protestant denominations welcome gay men
and lesbians to fellowship but do not allow them to be ordained
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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