As a muggy morning broke over Washington, D.C., on Monday, Human Rights Campaign executive director Cheryl Jacques was in the backseat of a car heading for an appearance on C-SPAN. The head of the nation's largest gay rights group had one last chance to ask lawmakers and American citizens not to support the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment in the hours before the U.S. senate restarted its debate of the proposal. The law reads, in part, that "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman." A vote on it is expected to take place on Wednesday.
Even though it is not expected to pass, the amendment has grabbed the attention of not only politicos in Washington but Americans across the country. That was readily apparent as Jacques debated conservative constitutional law expert Jay Sekulow on C-SPAN. Both fielded calls from a deeply divided U.S. electorate. A woman from the Midwest said she was straight but said same-sex marriage would not affect her and that she was completely against the amendment. Other callers, many from conservative states such as Texas and Oklahoma, talked about keeping "marriage traditional," "gay agendas," and "saving children" as they expressed support for the FMA. One caller told Jacques that gay people have "vile affection" for each other.
Unfazed, Jacques told viewers that her relationship with partner Jenn actually consisted of raising their two-year-old twins Timmy and Tommy--mostly a world of Cheerios and bedtime stories. "I had a flash while I was on the air, that 10 years ago these calls would have all been antigay," she told Advocate.com. "We've come a long way--all this debate and discourse." On Tuesday, Jacques will debate Tony Perkins, president of the notoriously antigay Family Research Council, on Fox News.
Tuesday's senate debate exposed a rift between Republican lawmakers on whether to support the amendment and just how to vote on it. Supporters of the amendment have nowhere near the 67 votes needed, nor the 60 votes for cloture, the Senate term for cutting off debate and taking an immediate vote, leading many pundits to label the amendment debate as pure election-year politics. But Utah senator Orrin Hatch said it was a "phony argument" to accuse the GOP of bringing the issue to a vote to make a political statement. Hatch then accused Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of holding "inconsistent positions on marriage." Added Arizona senator Jon Kyl: "These Massachusetts marriages will serve as the gateway to additional judicial activism throughout the United States."
But not all Republicans agree. There are a number of moderates, including Arizona's John McCain, who don't support marriage for gays but will not support the amendment because they feel same-sex marriage is an issue that should be decided by state legislatures. Finally, there are Democrats who see the FMA as nothing but political gay baiting and who are working hard for its defeat. Such senators include Massachusetts's Ted Kennedy, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, and New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For lawmakers who want George W. Bush reelected, actually passing the constitutional amendment is not the point. By bringing it up for debate they hope to fire up the Christian conservative voter base. They also hope to get Democrats to go on the record as being against a constitutional marriage ban. And they especially hope to embarrass John Kerry and John Edwards, who both told The Washington Post on Sunday that they would go to the Capitol for a final vote on the amendment. "Let's be very firm about it," Kerry told the newspaper. "Both John and I believe firmly and absolutely that marriage is between a man and a woman. But we also believe that you don't play with the Constitution of the United States for political purposes and amend the Bill of Rights when you don't need to, when states are adequately addressing this issue." In addition, Republicans hope to score points in key Senate races across the country, most notably that of South Dakota's Tom Daschle, who is in a tough reelection contest.
Among straight hill staffers and the gay men and lesbians who were out at Dupont Circle's bars and restaurants this past weekend, the proposed amendment has stirred up emotions. Many who spoke to Advocate.com said they were outraged the measure had gotten so far in Congress. Meanwhile, there were mixed reactions to the full-page ad that ran in a local gay newspaper on Friday, in which some gay activists are threatening to out staffers working for congresspeople who support the amendment. In his weekly radio address, President Bush added fuel to the fire by calling on the Senate to pass the amendment. "If courts create their own arbitrary definition of marriage as a mere legal contract and cut marriage off from its cultural, religious, and natural roots, then the meaning of marriage is lost and the institution is weakened," Bush said.
Adding confusion to the mix was Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife and mother of a lesbian. She said on Sunday that states should have the final say over the legal status of personal relationships. "I think that the constitutional amendment discussion will give us an opportunity to look for ways to discuss ways in which we can keep the authority of the states intact," Cheney told CNN's Late Edition. "First of all, to be clear that people should be free to enter into their relationships that they choose. And secondly, to recognize what's historically been the situation, that when it comes to conferring legal status on relationships, that is a matter left to the states," she said.
What can gay men and lesbians expect out of Washington this week? The flood of antigay rhetoric about the need to preserve the "institution of marriage" will likely continue. Conservative lawmakers are carefully crafting their talking points so that they do not specifically mention gay men and lesbians. Instead, they reportedly will use terms terms such as "values" and "culture wars." Gay rights groups, such as the HRC, the Log Cabin Republicans, and the National Stonewall Democrats, are going to be monitoring the developments very closely. The next 48 hours represent the culmination of months of lobbying lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to oppose the FMA. "The folks on the wrong side of this vote, in 15 years, will seem like the governors of the South who stood in the doorways of schools [to keep African-Americans from entering]," said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the national gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans. "They're going to regret it."
Advocate news features editor Chad Graham is in Washington, D.C., this week covering the Senate debate and vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment.