California Senate Poised on Marriage

The Legislature’s large Latino caucus key to victory in Assembly vote to follow

If things go as advocates expect, sometime Thursday California’s red-carpeted Victorian State Senate chamber in Sacramento will become famous as the place where, for the first time in American history, a full legislative body has voted yes for same-sex marriage—without being told to do so by a state’s courts.

In Massachusetts the state’s Legislature’s role in the wake of the historic 2003 Supreme Judicial Court ruling in favor of gay marriage was limited to making any conforming changes in statute to comply with the order within the six month window prior to the decision’s implementation.

But in California, a bill originated gay San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Democrat, is likely to pass the Senate this session, by the thinnest of margins, so thin that the bill’s backers held off the vote Wednesday to give one of 21 senators who promised support time to race back to the capitol—after his wife gave birth to a baby.

“It’s all about family values and we support him,” quipped Leno, a little nervously. If the bill passes Thursday, it’s likely to do so by just the one vote.

If it does pass, it will set a record—no other state is even close to doing the same; and it will shatter a few perceptions.

“It will totally take away the argument that it is just ‘activist judges’ who are finding for marriage non-discrimination,” said Geoff Kors, the head of Equality California, the state’s gay rights lobby. “It’s the people’s representatives in the largest state in the nation doing this.”

But the victory celebrations are likely to be short. Leno said the bill could move to the Legislature’s lower house, the Assembly, as early as next week. And there advocates are much less certain of victory. In June, an identical bill failed by a 37 to 36 margin.

But Leno said many things have changed in the three months since then.

Both the nations of Spain and Canada have said yes to same-sex marriage. The national United Church of Christ has come out in favor of gay marriage. The California branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has come out for it, as has the City Council of Los Angeles, and its new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

It is the mayor’s influence in the Latino community that might matter most. Three of the five undecided legislators are members of the Assembly’s large Latino caucus—27 of the house’s 80 members.

Since June the heavily-Latino United Farm Workers (UFW) union has signed on as a sponsor of the bill. Equality California has signed up the granddaughter of legendary UFW founder Caesar Chavez to help with organizing the state’s Latinos who number about 11 million, in a state of 33 million, according to the 2000 census.

The Assembly’s speaker and head of the Latino Caucus, Fabian Núñez, also signed on as a co-author of the bill at the beginning of the session.

But the state’s Catholic conference and the Catholic bishops’ lobby have put the bill at the top of their hit lists.

“I have been lobbied here by Catholics,” said State Senator Richard Alarcón, a co-author of the bill, in an interview in his Capitol office on the eve of the anticipated vote. “You can’t agree with everybody all the time.”

Kors said that the key to enlisting support among racial minorities is getting them to see gay rights as civil rights.

For Alarcón, that’s clear. “Last time I checked, LGBTs are also created by God,” he said. “I think they’re deserving of civil rights notwithstanding religious views.”

Alarcón was raised in a Catholic household, began his career teaching in a Catholic school, and made his political start on the Los Angeles City Council—from the heavily Latino San Fernando Valley, which he now represents in the Senate.

“The Latino community is very pro-civil rights,” he said. “And when push comes to shove, Latinos are very family oriented… if there is a member [of the family] who is a member of the LGBT community, they deal with it like they deal with other issues. They deal with it with love.”

Has he been attacked for his endorsement of gay marriage? “No,” he said. Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez from a neighboring San Fernando Valley district has been targeted by evangelical Christians, “but not Catholics,” Alarcón said. But he thinks he may have escaped because opponents wanted one name to focus on.

Alarcón said a catharsis—allowing him to understand that gay rights are civil rights—came at the funeral for his cousin Jimmy who died at 35 from AIDS in 1992.

“People were looking to me to say something.” Alarcón said he talked about how his cousin, who “was absolutely in love with Diana Ross” was two-spirited, “the embodiment of both the hunter spirit and the domestic nurturing spirit.”

By the end of the service, “everybody was in a pool of tears,” he recalled. “All [Jimmy’s] boyfriends came forward… I opened the doors to who Jimmy was. That was a sort of a declaration that civil rights are not limited to people of color.”

Alarcón’s adopted daughter, his ex-wife’s by a previous marriage, is a lesbian.

“I cannot fathom my daughter not having the opportunity to express her love. I cannot fathom her not being able to care for her sick loved one just because society doesn’t recognize her partnership and love.”

“If my daughter chose to marry her girlfriend,” Alarcón said, “I would like to perform the wedding.”