Troubling Signs of a Stiffer Backlash

When voters in 13 states during the past six moths adopted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, it was clear that the conservative response to the late 2003 ruling in favor of gay marriage by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was in full swing.

The anti-marriage drive, even on its own, is worrisome enough. Just as the community’s legal advocacy groups were making promising strides toward extending the gains in Vermont and Massachusetts elsewhere, those groups and their colleagues in political lobbying organizations are forced to deploy valuable resources in holding off regressive steps threatened in dozens of states. Not enough that 80 percent of the states have legislation modeled on the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, the amendment drive embeds anti-gay prohibitions deeper into the nation’s legal infrastru

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the right wing is not content merely to battle back the gay community’s prospective gains in marriage recognition.

A broader assault on the dignity of gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans and our families is indisputably under way, and that attack not only has the support of the president of the United States, his top lieutenants and conservative political leaders in state capitals nationwide, it also has a clear cultural subtext that will likely win adherents among many conservative Americans who might otherwise shy away from political activity.

The second term of George W. Bush’s administration could well herald the return of a full-blown culture war for the soul of America.

The most significant development in the right’s broadening of its assault on gay rights is the addition of gay adoption to same-sex marriage as a target of conservative fury. Currently, Florida is the only state in the union with an explicit ban on adoption by gay and lesbian parents, and the president’s brother, Jeb, that state’s governor, was willing to battle all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to defend that policy. The Florida statute was upheld by a three-judge federal appellate panel in Atlanta last year, a decision that might have been revisited by the full 11th Circuit were it not for the deciding vote cast by William H. Pryor, Jr., the former Alabama attorney general who was given a temporary, one-year appointment by the president during a congressional recess after Capitol Hill Democrats had blocked his nomination.

Gov. Bush did not have to send his advocates to Washington, when the Supreme Court last month refused to hear an appeal of the 11th Circuit decision.

In the wake of the 11th Circuit pronouncement and the Supreme Court’s recusal, a Republican legislator in Virginia has proposed language identical to Florida’s that would bar adoption by gay and lesbian parents there, as reported in this issue by Stefen Styrsky. According to the Gay and Lesbian Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, similar bans are being contemplated by right-wing legislators in Kentucky, Indiana and Alabama. Republican leaders in the Arkansas legislature are studying how to remedy the constitutional defects in that state’s ban on gay foster pare

All of this activity was given high visibility support in an otherwise implausible statement made by Pres. Bush to The New York Times last week. Asked whether he supported his brother’s ban on gay adoption in Florida, the president pled ignorance, but added, “studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman.”

The studies among reputable child experts, of course, show nothing of the kind, as has been demonstrated in child custody ruling after child custody ruling by courts across the nation.

Gay families also came under sharp attack from Margaret Spellings, the president’s newly minted secretary of education. In her first public statement after winning confirmation, Spellings took aim at the Public Broadcasting Service’s children show, “Postcards From Buster,” for the episode “Sugartime!” in which the lead bunny heads to Vermont to learn about harvesting maple syrup and meets an 11-year-old girl with lesbian parents. “Many parents would not want their children exposed to the lesbian lifestyle,” Spellings said, demanding that her department’s logo be removed from the episode and pushing for return of any federal money received by Boston’s WGBH, the show’s producer, in making it.

The same day as the Spellings letter was released, PBS announced it would not distribute the episode to its affiliates, though it denied that the secretary’s pressure influenced its decision. Whatever the specifics behind its reversal, PBS clearly displayed a craven willingness to fold in the face of potential criticism from their funders in Congress. WGBH, which is distributing the episode on it own, and affiliates such as WNET in New York, which is airing it, apparently arrived at the more thoughtful conclusion that children who have been forced to face a world that includes horrors such as the attacks of 9/11 can certainly handle a young Vermonter with two moms.

Political farce is reaching for even greater depths in Alabama and Arkansas. A Republican legislator in Montgomery who is a staunch supporter of the president’s has proposed legislation that bars the use of state funds to purchase books and other materials for public libraries “advocating gay and lesbian activities.” State Rep. Gerald Allen also said he would like to remove any such materials already found in libraries, “dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them.”

Meanwhile, in Little Rock, a proposal has cleared a state legislative committee that would require public school textbooks to incorporate a definition of marriage as being only between one man and one woman, despite the fact that the state education chief was unable to predict how much that might increase the cost of the school budget.

These efforts might seem comical—particularly from a New York vantage point —were it not clear that underlying this array of right-wing moves is a clear effort to render gay and lesbian families both powerless and invisible, particularly among the nation’s youth. This effort, that periodically gets a shot in the arm from the Oval Office, has the potential for doing harm not only to gay and lesbian adults, but to untold number of children, gay and straight, as well.

As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech on abortion last week and former Gov. Howard Dean’s speech in New York this past weekend—even if in very different ways—make clear, the Democrats are clearly scrambling to respond to the values mandate which Bush has declared since November 2. Dean was absolutely right—no American election should ever again be waged on the issue of gay marriage. But, hopefully, the Democrats will recognize a lesson lost on the Public Broadcasting System—that the assault on gay men, lesbians and our families has no place in American life and must be answered in no uncertain terms.