To the delight of the Republican Party, gay marriage has developed into a major issue in the 2004 presidential election. It seems like the Republican Party finds a hot-button cultural issue every election, especially when they cannot defend their candidate's record and policies.
From Willie Horton to flag burning and now gay marriage, the right wing has mastered the art of dividing and conquering.
While the Democratic National Committee and the National Stonewall Democratic Federation have been condemning the Republican attacks on gays and lesbians and the GOP's antigay politics, the Democratic presidential candidates have been put in a very difficult political position in an election year.
Apparent nominee John Kerry and his recent competitor and possible running mate John Edwards have both supported many gay and lesbian civil rights, but neither supports the right of gays and lesbians to marry. The "liberal" position on gay marriage has become contradictory and untenable.
How can Democrats claim to support equality for gays and lesbians and even "civil unions" to provide gay couples most of the rights and benefits of marriage, but not support equality in civil marriage? Aren't Democrats advocating "separate but unequal" treatment?
Recent court decisions have made it clear that without a constitutional amendment, there is no constitutional basis for denying gays and lesbians the right to civil marriage. Thus, Bush and the Republicans have come out in support of an amendment to engrave discrimination against gays and lesbians into the U.S. Constitution.
Thankfully, most Democratic party leaders, including the party's candidates and the DNC, have condemned Bush and the GOP for supporting the Federal Marriage Amendment. They have correctly accused Bush and the Republicans of engaging in gay-bashing for political gain.
John Kerry is in a very difficult position, since the Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that gays and lesbians are entitled to nothing short of civil marriage rights. Civil unions are not adequate. Unless the Massachusetts Constitution is amended to prohibit same-sex marriages, that state must allow gays and lesbians to marry.
Kerry maintains his opposition to gay marriage; therefore, he will have to support such an amendment or change his position. If he does support amending the Massachusetts Constitution, he will be committing to the same antigay discrimination he accuses Bush and the Republicans of supporting.
It is essential that the Democratic Party stand by the principle that all citizens, including gays and lesbians, should be treated equally under the law and entitled to the same civil rights. It would be a great step backward for civil rights if the Democratic Party espoused "separate but equal" rights and "states' rights." The only logically consistent and ethical position is to support the right of gays and lesbians to civil marriage.
The Democratic Party, especially in Tennessee, should not support the right-wing attacks on gays and lesbians. It must stand up to the bigotry of the antigay right and defend equality and social justice, even if it means losing a political election. We should not give up our values for short-term political gain. In the long term, those who support equality for all will win politically.
Jim Maynard is chair of the Memphis Stonewall Democrats.