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Against All Odds 

Fundamentalists want to ban same-sex marriage. All across California, people are mad as hell. So how come nobody's doing anything about it?

Wednesday, May 22 1996
At 25, Ellen McCormick is one of the youngest lobbyists in Sacramento, and at the moment she's taking a break outdoors in a cafe down the block from the Capitol, the rotunda-topped palace where double-breasted businessmen travel in packs of twos and threes, backslapping and glad-handing their way through the corridors of power. The boys don't make life easy for outsiders, so if you're going to be a woman lobbyist, there are some rules to remember. Rule No. 1: Wear high heels. And it goes without saying that, in the gilded chambers where state laws are made, women are expected to refrain from shaving their heads. On this particular afternoon, McCormick's coppery buzz cut catches the bright spring sunlight as she leans back in her chair and sighs.

"Sometimes it's heartbreaking," McCormick is saying. "You go to rallies and parades and marches and these kinds of things and everyone is so angry, they've got all this energy. And then the day comes when they're having an Assembly vote on the most important gay bill certainly in my lifetime, and I'm the only queer who's running around." She stops, takes a drag on a cigarette. Her freckled skin is flushed.

The legislation McCormick is distressed about are the two marriage bills that California's elected state officials will be deciding on this session. The bills pack a double wallop: One bill would ban marriage between people of the same gender; the other would define marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation.

The marriage ban has cleared the lower House. The procreation bill is up for a vote in the Assembly, and if it too passes, both pieces of legislation will await action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The brawl over this legislation was instigated by the bills' sponsor, Assemblyman William J. "Pete" Knight, Republican of Palmdale.

And it's a fight that the nation has its eyes on. Bills to ban same-gender marriage are pending in eight state legislatures across the country, have been signed into law in eight others, and have been defeated in 15 more, but California is considered to be the bellwether state, eclipsed in significance only by the Defense of Marriage Act introduced two weeks ago in the U.S. Congress. It's one thing for Mormon-dominated Utah or geezer-glutted Arizona to ban gay marriage; if freewheeling California does it, then the tenets of the game change. Especially now, with the May 20 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming that gays and lesbians cannot be denied equal protection under the law. The height of the stakes in Sacramento is about the only thing that the opposing sides agree on. It's an all-out, for-keeps war.

The religious right has joined the battle fully armed. Spearheaded by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of Orange County and his Traditional Values Coalition, the foes of same-sex marriage have unleashed the might of 8,300 California churches and the money, power, and legal expertise of the Rutherford Institute, Concerned Women for America, the Committee on Moral Concerns, the Capitol Resource Institute, and other conservative organizations to push the bills through.

And on the side for same-sex marriage? There's the Freedom to Marry Task Force, formed in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's set up tables at 18th Street and Castro, among other places, and urged people to write letters. There's the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, too, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, whose staff members have testified against the bills. But working full time on the front lines in the Capitol in Sacramento?

Well, that would be Ellen McCormick.
Just one year ago, McCormick had a retail sales job in Los Angeles and was putting herself through graduate school. Now she's the civil rights lobbyist for Life, California's lesbian, gay, and AIDS lobby. It is McCormick's job to be the voice for same-sex marriage in the marble-floored hallways of the Capitol, where her waiflike, brogan-shod, crew-cut-coiffed presence isn't always appreciated. But everything she believes in is riding on this, the weight of the world on her shoulders. To say that she lives her job is understating it. She sleeps it. She breathes it.

"I'm like, where is everybody? Where did they go?" she says. "There was all this passion and energy, and now it's just me."

Legislation, you've no doubt heard, is like sausage -- somebody makes it. It doesn't come out of thin air. In gender politics, though, only one side, the Christian right side, seems to have truly grasped this fact. The rest of us try to influence legislation strictly through telekinesis, as if sitting and thinking hard about something in the privacy of our living rooms means we'll get what we want out of government. This is not usually the case.

Up in Sacramento, the primo pork-grinders on marriage are a sorry lot indeed: evangelists, door-slammers, cranky old flying aces who chain-smoke at their desks while wheezing on about morality and sin. Not a Nobel Prize candidate among them. And yet they've figured out how to turn sheer numbers and an utter lack of regard for how their enemies view them into resounding -- almost deafening -- clout.

Compare that with the well-meaning but inept opposition. Working with trust and good intentions in a climate where money and fear reign, McCormick and the few others who have ventured into the same-sex marriage fray are in danger of finding themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered simply because everybody else is too busy worrying about what's going on to get anything done.

And if the debate over same-sex marriage comes down to one thing, it's this: In a political vacuum, plenty of bills that suck get passed. And people who don't like it have no one to blame but themselves.

Now, the fight about marriage didn't start in California. Those laurels belong to the Aloha State, where, in 1991, three same-gender couples sued for the right to marry. The case made its way to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the state had to show a compelling reason why marriage was limited to couples of opposite sex, and remanded the case back to a lower court for trial. Hawaii, you see, has a clause in its constitution prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender. So, the high court there reasoned, if you can't marry someone because you're a man and he's a man, but you could if he were a woman, that could be a gender-discrimination issue. The case is expected to go to trial later this summer.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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