Gay Rights: Balance is Sought on a Sensitive Topic
Candidates’ priority is finding the middle
Detroit Free Press,
July 2, 2002
321 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI 48231
By Dawson Bell, Free Press Staff Writer
In August 1992, failed Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan gave
a fiery speech at his party’s national convention on the erosion of moral
values in America, including the peril posed by the gay rights agenda.
It was, in hindsight, a political disaster.
Less than six months later, Democratic President Bill Clinton—having
benefited in significant part by public revulsion to Buchanan’s brand of
Republicanism—proposed an end to the ban on gays in the U.S. military.
It was, in hindsight, a political disaster.
Although opposition to and promotion of gay rights both sometimes appear to
have an internal logic, striking the right political chord has proven elusive.
Four of the five major party candidates for governor in Michigan this year
seem to believe the proper balance in one area—state sanction of gay couples—can
be found by rejecting same-sex marriage but creating some form of civil union
or domestic partnership law.
In a Free Press survey on gay issues, Democrats Jim Blanchard, David Bonior
and Jennifer Granholm, along with Republican Joe Schwarz, all said Michigan
should continue to ban gay marriage, and—instead—recognize domestic
Republican Dick Posthumus opposes both.
But if one of the pro-partnership group is elected and promotes such a
plan, would he or she get the Buchanan-Clinton treatment from the public?
Mark Grebner, a political analyst based in East Lansing, said he thinks
times have changed; Michigan may be ready for a frankly progay leader. Of all
the issues along the front in the culture wars of the last two decades, gay
rights is the "one where the frontier is moving most rapidly," he
"Intolerance for intolerance is growing. Antigay politicians have to
be concerned about being caught in the tide pool."
Grebner, a liberal Democrat, may misjudge the public mood. None of the
gubernatorial candidates has made the promotion of civil rights for gays and
lesbians a major theme. Granholm has been warmly received at appearances
before gay activist groups (and endorsed by the progay Pride political action
committee). But she initially declined to say whether she believes Michigan
law allows same-sex couples to adopt children, or whether the state’s
criminal sanction against sodomy should be repealed.
After some prodding for a yes or no answer, she came down on the gay rights
side of the adoption question. But she declined to do so on sodomy, saying
"we shouldn’t have laws that invade the privacy of consenting
On the adoption issue, Schwarz also declined to commit to a yes or no,
saying the issue is in the courts.
Yet even James Muffett, of the Lansing-based Citizens for Traditional
Values—which steadfastly supports the notion of marriage as the union of a
man and a woman—admits he feels of late as if he is "going against the
grain" of popular culture.
Backers of gay rights have done "a good job of playing the
victim," thereby blurring the distinction between opposition to "the
homosexual lifestyle and opposition to homosexuals," Muffett said.
Ultimately, however, he said he believes a majority of Michigan voters
"are with us . . . that our definition in law of what a marriage is,
still means something." As on so many social issues, public opinion is
hard to gauge.
In a Marketing Resource Group poll in March 2000, likely voters supported
the Traditional Values’ definition of marriage by a more than 2-1 margin (66
percent to 27 percent). The other seven percent said they were undecided.
Other measures of public opinion have consistently shown that opposition
would be less dramatic to some of the other items on the gay agenda, like
civil-rights protection and enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by
prejudice against gays—both of which are supported by the three Democratic
candidates and Schwarz. On one issue on which the next governor could play a
role—whether state employee benefits should be extended to domestic partners—Posthumus
was again the lone opponent.
But spokesman Sage Eastman said the Posthumus campaign is comfortable with
its position. Same-sex partner benefits "opens up a can of worms,"
David Hill, a pollster based in Houston who has worked in Michigan for
Republican Gov. John Engler and the state GOP, said his advice to candidates
on this issue is to steer clear of harsh rhetoric or impetuous promises.
"Candidates need to be practical about these things," he said.
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