Last edited: February 14, 2005


Gay Rights: Balance is Sought on a Sensitive Topic

Candidates’ priority is finding the middle

Detroit Free Press, July 2, 2002
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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 partnerships.

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 said.

"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 adults."

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," he said.

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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