Democrats Waffling on Marriage Amendment

Published in: July-August 2004 issue.


You’ve got to hand it to the Bush administration—they take care of their own. From tax breaks for the wealthy to cheating New York City out of 9/11 security funds in favor of “red” states like Wyoming, key Bush constituencies have been rewarded. Perhaps nothing is more glaring, however, than what has been done to cater to the demands of the religious right.

To appease them, the President’s “Faith-Based Initiative” has breached the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. With barely a shred of empirical evidence to show they work, “abstinence only” programs are being lavishly funded—at the expense of New York-based HIV prevention programs targeting gay and bisexual men. Even with all of these giveaways, the religious right demanded more and they got it: the President’s active support of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriage and enshrining the second-class citizenship of gay and lesbian couples in our nation’s most sacred document.

We can moan and groan, but the president is delivering money and issuing red meat to a part of the electorate that was responsible for forty percent of his votes in 2000. In return, these voters are energized, grateful, and will turn out en masse in November—an essential ingredient if Mr. Bush is to be re-elected. Old fashioned, smart politics.

So what are the Democrats doing to protect and energize a critical part of their base, namely the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community? After all, our people consistently and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. In New York City, GLBT voters account for nearly ten percent of all votes cast and, nationwide, we are the party’s third most loyal bloc of support—just behind the African-American and Jewish communities. We’ve remained loyal in spite of slaps like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and the lack of a single federal law acknowledging our existence, even when the Democrats controlled the White House and one or both houses of Congress. Just as important in this day and age, our community—particularly New Yorkers—raises a ton of money for Democrats, far outstripping our proportion of the vote. Given all of this, one would think the party would be willing—rhetorically and legislatively—to stand up for us.

Let me be specific. I don’t understand why our community should have to spend one more hour, one more dime, make one more phone call or write one more letter to make sure that an anti-gay, anti-marriage constitutional amendment is dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate.

Last July 17, at a meeting attended by New York Senators Schumer and Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle pledged that Senate Democrats would kill the federal marriage amendment if it ever came to a vote. We were all grateful and relieved to hear that pledge. But, it didn’t feel like such a big lift to me because killing the amendment requires only 34 votes, and there are 48 Democrats, five of whom are retiring at the end of this year. In other words, every single Democratic Senator considered “at risk” this fall could be “let off the hook” on this vote, if necessary, and the amendment would still be defeated. We’ve since discovered that, in a classic display of Washington legalese, Daschle’s pledge last July is in question. You see, it apparently applied only to “the” Federal Marriage Amendment as it was written last year. If the amendment is reworded so it still outlaws same-sex marriage anywhere in the country, but leaves the door open to state-based domestic partnerships or civil unions, all bets are off.

As a result, GLBT organizations—including the Task Force, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and numerous other New York groups—have been making desperate appeals to their members asking them to press their representatives in Washington to oppose the amendment. HRC has raised six million dollars to fight it. Ironically, even the Democratic Party has jumped on the bandwagon, seeking 500,000 signatures on petitions opposing the amendment during gay pride events this summer.

For me, it’s appalling—indeed, sickening—that scarce resources are being sucked into this work. Everything we have should, instead, be funneled to our allies in the ten or more states facing ugly and divisive campaigns to ratify anti-marriage state constitutional amendments this November. Sadly, it looks as though they’ll be left nearly high and dry, again.

We thought we could help head this off and give some cover to those now getting squishy on us by getting a few senators from totally safe seats not up for election this year to say unambiguously that they would oppose any amendment seeking to restrict marriage rights. (There’s no shortage of ways to say this without—God forbid—having to endorse marriage equality.) Turns out not even they would come through. One response I got was, “You can’t ask us to say we’ll oppose any amendment. What if the amendment is re-worded to specifically authorize civil unions?”—as if that were likely to happen.

Sorry, I can’t buy this. We’re not asking Senate Democrats to take a stand for full equality or even asking them to vote against a popular measure. (In fact, no poll shows majority support for the amendment.) No, this is about amending the U.S. Constitution to take away rights from a minority, something that has never occurred in the history of our nation. If the anti-gay author of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, former Rep. Bob Barr, is against amending the Constitution this way, how hard should this be for our “friends”? I recognize that this issue is incendiary in many parts of the country—how about our own New York senators stepping out front and giving cover to their colleagues in less gay-supportive places?

The religious right knows how to play adult politics: they insist on getting something in exchange for their support. It’s time we did the same. Our community is owed a renewed pledge—now—that any anti-marriage amendment is dead on arrival in the Senate. Folks, this is a do-or-die, “put up or walk away from the table” moment. No excuses, no deals, and no waffling can be accepted.


Matt Foreman is the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, DC.


Read More from Matt Foreman