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For gays and lesbians, a year of remarkable gains

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

By Steve Levin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mikheal Meece and Rebecca McTall-Meece believe a piece of paper could improve their lives greatly.

  

CLOSE-UP 2003
One of a series


TOMORROW: For Joe and Erin Perry of Ross, it's been a year of change -- and changing diapers -- as they welcomed sextuplets into their family.

The paper is a marriage license. A year ago, a gay couple getting one seemed as likely as a mainstream Protestant denomination consecrating an openly gay bishop.

That was 2002.

But in 2003, the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson became the newest bishop in the Episcopal Church USA and legally sanctioned gay marriage doesn't seem so farfetched any more.

It was a year of remarkable gains for gays and lesbians on a number of fronts. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Texas' anti-sodomy law and last month the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state's constitution entitles gay couples to all the rights of marriage.

Between those bookend decisions were such public events as Madonna and Britney Spears' public kiss, the growing popularity of gay-oriented TV shows and the legalization by two Canadian provinces of gay civil marriages. At the same time, an increasing number of clergy conducted same-sex blessings ceremonies in churches.

"I definitely think in the last year that there has been a huge leap forward in terms of public awareness and gains for the [gay and lesbian] community," McTall-Meece said.

"Hopefully, [the Massachusetts] decision will lead the way for other supreme courts to make similar rulings recognizing same-sex unions."

The Dormont couple has been together nearly four years and has triplets. They plan to travel to Canada as soon as their children's amended birth certificates arrive stipulating the couple as legal parents of 15-month-old Connor, Olivia and Noah. There, they will get married before a judge, and while the marriage license won't be recognized in this country, it will be in others.

The civil marriage permit available to gays in Vermont, the only state so far that conducts such civil unions, is not recognized in other states.

The Massachusetts legislature will decide next year whether the state's highest court ruling means marriage rights for all, since a Vermont-style civil union would not allow same-sex couples to take advantage of federal benefits like Social Security.

Nevertheless, implicit in a marriage license is public approval.

"It lends a certain stamp of authority," said McTall-Meece, 28, who works as a physician's assistant at Allegheny General Hospital while Meece, 35, stays at home with the triplets.

"I think having a piece of paper is just a way of recognizing the commitment. It gives dignity and respect to the commitment that it deserves. "I can't say I'm married. To say Mikheal is my partner doesn't convey the same sense."

Feelings are just as strong on the other side of the debate. This year, a constitutional amendment against gay marriage was introduced in Congress. And recent public opinion polls have shown that while Americans may tolerate gays and lesbians to a higher degree, they still are not in favor of gay marriage.

A New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month found that Americans were opposed to gay marriage by a 61 percent to 34 percent margin. The same poll found that 55 percent of Americans favored a constitutional amendment that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman.

"Clearly, one dramatic change in the wake of these developments is that a larger proportion of Americans are saying, 'Wait a second; we didn't mean for this to go quite so far,' " said Allan Carlson, a historian and president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, a nonprofit research center in Rockford, Ill., that focuses on research and analysis of traditional marriage.

"For the first time, people are thinking about marriage and what it really means as opposed to just going on with the flow. They're thinking, '[Gay marriage] is really different. We don't want to abandon something so fundamental to the societal order as marriage.' "

After the election of Robinson this summer as an Episcopal bishop, the fallout was swift. Leaders of several Anglican Communion provinces in Africa and Asia denounced the move and declared themselves and their millions of followers in "impaired" or "broken" relationships with not just Robinson but also those who supported him. Pittsburgh Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr. emerged as the leader of a group of Episcopal bishops that has formed a network of dioceses and parishes opposed to Robinson's consecration.

The heavy publicity surrounding Robinson's election and subsequent consecration, and the intra-church debate, led many Episcopal leaders to cringe at the public perception that the 2.3-million-member denomination talked only about sex.

"We've been in this conversation for 40 years; it's not just the last six months," said the Rev. Jan Nunley, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church, referring to church discussions reaching back to the civil rights era about "how we treat each other when we disagree."

"I don't think it's so much a road we've been on as a spiral," Nunley said. "That is to say, I'm noticing that on this road we keep running around to the same place again. We just keep going a little bit deeper into it."

Gilbert Herdt, director of the National Sexuality Resource Center, a graduate and undergraduate program in human sexuality at San Francisco State University, believes the question of gay marriage revolves around its religious and secular aspects.

"When it comes to marriage, I think there's going to be continued resistance when people think about it as a religious institution," Herdt said. "If marriage is seen as secular, it has much higher [public] support. I think it's the religious dimension" that is sparking the debate.

The recent New York Times/CBS News poll supports Herdt's contention.

According to the poll, 53 percent of Americans believe marriage is a religious concern. Of those, 71 percent are against gay marriage.

Of the 33 percent of Americans who believe marriage is essentially a secular matter, 55 percent support gay marriage.

For Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University, the question of gays and lesbians in church leadership positions will continue to reverberate among other Protestant denominations.

None, however, will move forward on the issue "as fast as the Episcopalians have."

Instead, Goff sees a steady progression ahead for gays and lesbians in religion. The past year, he said, mirrors the divisive early years of the civil rights movement.

"We're probably a decade away from seeing full rights for gays," Goff said. "We're at that stage where it seems to me to be three steps forward and two steps back."


Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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