With President Bush’s proclamation that civil marriage in the United States must exclude same-sex connubiality, legal union for gays and lesbians is on the forefront of national consciousness. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco has issued marriage licenses to 3,500 couples, and some cities in New Mexico and, recently, New York State have followed suit. Most notably, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts has not only deemed it unconstitutional to deny the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage to people of the same gender, but in a second ruling it has declared that civil unions are not an acceptable solution.
Last spring, the Domestic Partnership Act failed by one vote in the New Haven Board of Aldermen, but it promises to be reintroduced this spring. A domestic partnership requires that neither partner is married, both are of age, they are not closely related by blood, that “they share the common necessities of life,” and that “the partners declare that each is the other’s sole domestic partner.” In addition to providing such important rights as hospital visitation and participating in decisions about the other’s care, the union will be recognized by the city of New Haven as having the same dignity and significance of heterosexual married couples.
The issue of civil marriage for same-sex couples has exploded into a contentious and acrimonious debate, which the president is feeding as his credibility continues to be questioned and as prominent conservatives put pressure on his administration. Mayor Newsom’s actions, while noble and just, may aggravate this division in the American people, and even some supporters of equal marriage may be disconcerted that the mayor’s actions go against California state law. New Haven’s proposed amendment, however, would not pose any such legal conflict. As both the Federal Congress and Connecticut’s Legislature argue over the issue of civil marriage, the Domestic Partnership Amendment acknowledges and legally protects same-sex couples without engendering the same controversy. As the laws regarding marriage are relegated to the states, the city of New Haven will not make any legislation affecting that institution.
While the Domestic Partnership Amendment may only affect one city, and may not afford rights on a state or federal level, its symbolic importance is not to be underestimated. Despite the affirming nature of recent events, discrimination against LGBT people is alive, well, and socially acceptable. For instance, Senator Rick Santorum also commented on the Supreme Court’s ruling to strike down anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, “[I]f the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”
President Bush, who has claimed to be a “uniter,” is exacerbating the unfortunately deep rift on this issue. Coming from a family of two heterosexual parents, a younger sister, and up until recently a gentle golden retriever, I embrace the strength of the traditional family as much as he. I do not, however, restrict my definition of a stable family unit to the one to which I, as many others, am most accustomed. Generally speaking, gay people are really not so different from their heterosexual counterparts and contribute just as much to society. No solid evidence exists that gay and lesbian couples have any negative effect on society, as is evidenced in Canada. My suitemate from Ontario said that his province’s same-sex marriage affected him so little that he was not entirely certain of its status, and had to go online to make sure it had in fact been legalized.
We live in a highly diverse country, and while this is enriching, it is inevitable that conflicts will arise between different groups. We should look on this as a challenge, that we may find a way to live together and say, “I respect what you think,” and for once to mean it. Legal recognition of same-sex couples will cause distress to some, and I wish to honor their feelings. Still, this is an inappropriate reason for the government to curtail the rights of those who feel that love transcends the boundary of gender. Several religions, in fact, already recognize such unions. Bush is putting his religion above these others. His constant reference to the “sanctity of marriage” speaks to this, and in the State of the Union he referred to “the … moral tradition that defines marriage.” Bush could stand to follow the advice of one of our greatest forefathers, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the namesake of my residential college, Ezra Stiles: “I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments … All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will in assisting them … and as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.”
New Haven’s Domestic Partnership Act may be small in the greater scheme, but it is an affirming statement: that the Elm City is willing to embrace the differences of its inhabitants, and despite differing personal beliefs, citizens may regard each other with respect. Then together we may leave behind this quintessential example of “much ado about nothing” and focus on the pressing issues — the economy, joblessness, the situation in Iraq — that have been distressingly overshadowed.
Andrew Kohler is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.