In gay rights movement, marriage is a litmus test | Editorial

Vashon’s easy acceptance of gay and lesbian couples likely seems normal to those of us who have lived on the Island for any length of time. Indeed, the issue of whom one shares one’s intimate life with may seem worthy of scant discussion anymore.

But the fact is, on this issue — as on so many — Vashon’s hardly a mirror of national attitudes.

Fundamental issues pertaining to how gays and lesbians are treated both legally and socially continue to divide this country, making gay rights one of the biggest and most divisive human rights issues in our country today.

The flashpoint of late, of course, has centered around the institution of marriage — a litmus test to gay-rights advocates and supporters who see the nation’s unwillingness to legally sanction same-sex relationships as a symbol of our none-too-hidden homophobia. And it’s more than a symbol, advocates point out. Marriage comes with a host of rights and privileges, issues that can prove critical in a medical emergency, as former Islanders David Rothmiller and LD Thompson made poignantly clear in their award-winning documentary “For My Wife.”

Progress has been made on this fundamental issue. The New York Senate’s high-stakes and much-watched vote to legalize gay marriage in June was a huge victory for the movement. New Yorkers — in the city that birthed the gay rights movement with the Stonewall uprising more than 40 years ago — took to the streets in a celebratory recognition of the milestone. It was a remarkable moment.

But progress has been intermittent, at best, and the hurdles to this most basic of civic institutions are still many and significant. Twenty-nine states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, while 12 others have laws against it. And in Washington, where civil unions but not married ones are legal for same-sex couples, Sen. Ed Murray, who has filed bills to approve gay marriages every year since 1997, says the Senate doesn’t have the votes to get it approved yet again in 2012.

Now, leaders in the gay rights movement — which include some of the nation’s keenest legal minds — are gearing up for what many believe could prove the denouement in this decades-long struggle: a well-conceived Supreme Court challenge of the nation’s Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriages and limits the significance of state legislation. Those at the forefront believe that a strong lawsuit could garner a majority on the high court and launch a new era, much as Brown vs. The Board of Education did for the civil rights movement.

Vashon, of course, is a bit player to this drama. At the same time, our community — which leads the state in the percentage of same-sex households — may be a bellwether. Attitudes are changing in the United States, suggesting that in the none-too-distant future, same-sex marriage, similar to mixed-race marriage today, will be largely accepted across the country.

Marriage is certainly not the only issue that matters in the gay rights movement, and to some, it doesn’t matter at all. But it is a powerful symbol. And soon, we believe and hope, the nation will be more like Vashon, a place where gay and lesbian couples are easily and warmly received and where the issue warrants little attention.

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