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Gay Connecticut lawmaker at center of civil unions debate

Gay Connecticut lawmaker at center of civil unions debate

As a state senator leading Connecticut down the aisle toward civil unions for gay couples, Andrew McDonald is hearing plenty of objections. The bill's harshest opponents claim that McDonald, one of the few openly gay lawmakers in the legislature, will burn in hell. At the same time, some gay rights activists assert that civil unions amount to second-class citizenship for gays and have told McDonald that he has a special obligation to champion full marriage rights for same-sex couples. "I find it, frankly, difficult to have someone who is publicly out and identifies himself as a gay man taking this kind of weak position," said Brian Schwartz, a gay rights activist in Westport who held a fund-raiser for McDonald three years ago. "He always seems to sidestep an opportunity to firmly take a position in favor of marriage rights." McDonald is cochairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, which last month voted 25-13 in favor of legislation that would create a civil unions system. The bill would give gay and lesbian couples many of the same state rights as married heterosexuals but would not allow them to get a marriage license. The Stamford Democrat, who has been a lawmaker for slightly more than two years, is shepherding the bill through the legislature. McDonald rejects any notion that he should instead be leading a crusade for gay marriage, something he says the state is not ready for. "We in Connecticut now have broad consensus on the appropriateness and acceptability of civil unions--that's landmark stuff," McDonald said. "There may come a time when the majority of my constituents embrace civil marriage for same-sex couples. If and when that time comes to pass, I will vote in favor of it." The bill would make Connecticut the first state to act without a court order in allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Vermont enacted a civil union law five years ago in response to a court decision. The debate over gay marriage predated McDonald's election to the legislature. He was thrust into it when he was named the senate chairman of the judiciary committee as a freshman. "The issue found me," McDonald said. "I didn't pursue the issue. My obligation is to try to craft a solution that will bring as many people to a consensus as possible." Since then, McDonald has played a pivotal role in moving the bill closer to law, said Democratic representative Michael Lawlor of East Haven, the committee's other cochairman. "Without him playing the role he's playing in the senate, this would not be happening," Lawlor said. Lawlor predicted the bill, which passed the appropriations committee this week, will become law. But opponents are still working to defeat the bill. On Tuesday the Republican State Central Committee voted unanimously to endorse traditional marriage between one man and one woman. "We hope all Connecticut residents will contact their legislators and tell them that civil unions are not good for our state," Republican representative William Hamzy, the state GOP chairman, said Wednesday. Many gay rights activists also initially opposed civil unions."Please do not accept 'separate but equal' as a payoff," actor Harvey Fierstein, who lives in Connecticut, wrote in a letter before the bill passed the judiciary committee. "Don't let anyone brand you a second-class citizen." Others, including Love Makes a Family, the state's major gay rights advocacy group, have softened their opposition to civil unions and come to accept McDonald's approach. "I think he's done an excellent job shepherding this bill through the legislature," said Anne Stanback, president of the group. "I think it's the best we can do this year. It certainly will provide real rights and protections." Vermont representative Bill Lippert, that state's only openly gay lawmaker when it enacted its civil union law, said he understands the conflicting pressures McDonald faces. Lippert said he supported same-sex marriage at the time but realized only civil unions would pass. "No one can appreciate what it means to be in the center of this storm," Lippert said. "We received horrific threats, and some of your closest friends and allies are also acting critical toward you." (John Christoffersen, AP)

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