The Family Values Sideshow

E. J. Graff

November 04, 2005

E.J. Graff, a Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center resident scholar, most recently collaborated on Evelyn Murphy’s book Getting Even: Why Women Still Don't Get Paid Like Men--And What To Do About It.

When did lying become a family value? Maybe it’s naïve of me to be shocked, but honestly: The family values folks lie. And you should pay attention to exactly how they lie, because any minute now they’ll be bringing their campaigns to your state.

Here’s what they’ll tell you when they’re trying to persuade voters to pass a one-man-one-woman marriage amendment: The amendment will merely put velvet ropes around the word “marriage.” It won’t be mean; it won’t deprive lesbian and gay couples of job benefits; it won’t close the door to other protections for same-sex couples and their families. But once the amendment passes, those same proponents will shout that any recognition whatsoever of a same-sex couple is an incursion into that sacred territory, marriage.

For instance, consider the before and after language used about just a handful of the anti-marriage amendments passed last November. The director of the Oregon Family Council, Tim Nashif, was quoted by the Oregon Bend Bulletin in 2004 as arguing in favor of his amendment: “Same-sex couples should seek marriage-like rights through another avenue, such as civil unions.” That same summer in Michigan, the pamphlet distributed by Michigan’s family values forces explained that their proposed amendment is:

Only about marriage. Marriage is a union between husband and wife. Proposal 2 will keep it that way. This is not about rights or benefits or how people choose to live their lives. This has to do with family, children, and the way people are. It merely settles the question once and for all what marriage is—for families today and future generations.

And Utah’s 2004 amendment, according to the description printed by state representative LaVar Christensen in the Utah Voter Guide,"does not deny any existing rights under Utah law.… [C]oncerns can be separately addressed without sanctioning and giving blanket marriage status to same-sex couples."

Such modest rhetoric won over many a cautious voter, according to polling before and after those amendments passed. Voters might not have been ready to alter an institution central to their lives, but neither did they want to be gratuitously nasty to lesbian or gay family, friends and colleagues. That’s why, in pale blue or lavender states, the amendments are written as some variation on this misleading phrase, from Michigan’s 2004 constitutional amendment: “Marriage is inherently a unique relationship between a man and a woman.” In redder states, the phrase might be more explicit, as in this one from Mississippi’s 2004 amendment: “Any marriage between persons of the same gender is prohibited and null and void from the beginning.” As I’ve written elsewhere, for those voters who haven’t thought long and hard about the issue, such wording often comes across as a mere dictionary definition, a vote in favor of Webster’s.

But once those amendments are in place, the family values folks race, pitchforks in hand, into their local city councils, courts, public universities and legislatures. Arguing vehemently that voters had clearly declared that marriage was between a man and a woman, they insist that partnership recognition under any other name is “marriage in disguise.” Civil unions? A naked invasion of that sacred, unique, time-honored territory called marriage. Domestic partnership benefits? Marriage! Shared health insurance? Marriage, all marriage, all forever off the table.

Think I’m exaggerating? After Oregon’s one-man-one-woman amendment passed, its state senate tried to pass a civil unions bill. Tim Nashif—same guy who said that Oregon’s amendment was only about marriage, and that homos could have civil unions if they wanted—told the Oregon Statesman Journal , “SB 1000 takes everything that marriage is and calls it civil unions ." His communications director Nick Graham wrote to Oregon Family Council supporters, “Please understand there is no greater threat to marriage right now than civil unions .” (Emphasis mine in both quotes.)

The same playbook was used in Michigan. Once that state’s marriage amendment passed, Republican Attorney General Mike Cox insisted that the city of Kalamazoo (and by implication other public entities, like state universities) had to stop paying health insurance premiums for its employees’ domestic partners—because offering such benefits meant treating those couples as married . The Michigan ACLU and local unions took the case to trial, where the judge ruled that voters hadn’t banned domestic partnership benefits. Before the case could even be appealed, Republicans in the Michigan senate passed a resolution asking the state supreme court to halt those benefits until the issue was finally decided. This week, that’s exactly what an appeals court did—protecting Michigan from whatever locusts might descend if state employees’ same-sex partners could fill their prescriptions.

And yes, the same bait and switch happened in Utah. After its 2004 marriage amendment passed, Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson challenged the “family values” folks to live up to their rhetoric by issuing an executive order granting medical benefits to unmarried city employees’ domestic partners. In an August poll of Utah voters, according to Detroit News columnist Deb Price , only 33 percent who supported that state’s amendment believed they would be voting to deny partner benefits to same-sex couples. They were wrong. State representative LaVar Christensen—same dude who wrote that same-sex couples should care for each other in some other way than marriage—wrote that the mayor was "trying to create his own marriage and divorce laws within the city limits." So there!

In Ohio, where family values forces had assured voters that their one-man-one-woman amendment would touch nothing but the word marriage itself, a Cuyahoga county trial court judge has declared that, because of the amendment, the state’s domestic violence statute can no longer protect partners (whether different-sex or same-sex) who aren’t married. And family values groups challenged Cleveland Heights’ domestic partnership registry as an incursion into marriage. Although they lost in court, here’s how the national group Focus on the Family described all this in its web newsletter : “In Michigan and Ohio gay activists are chipping away at the amendments by asking the courts to say they don't prohibit domestic partner benefits….  [T]he stage is being set for a national push to create marriage by another name, one state at a time.”

Here’s why I should know better than to be surprised: because anti-gay groups have been playing this same trick, over and over again, since the 1980s. Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of the national group Freedom to Marry, told me years ago that he first caught onto this tactic during the 1980s AIDS crisis, when he was a lawyer at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Whenever he tried to help New York City recognize gay partners—with domestic partnership benefits, or by helping a man keep a rent-controlled apartment whose lease had been in his dead partner’s name—opposition forces hollered that these were incursions into the sacred, unique, time-honored (etc., etc.) institution of marriage. If everything is marriage, if the flak you take will be the same no matter how small your request, Wolfson reasoned, why not go for marriage itself?

Pay attention to all these lies, because the “family values” sideshow is coming soon to your state. As I write this, according to the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, 16 states have anti-marriage constitutional amendments; most of those are passed on top of the simpler “defense of marriage” statutes already in place in 39 states and the federal government. This November 8, just two years after passing a one-man-one-woman statute, Texas will vote on a constitutional amendment as well (and if it passes by less than 70/30, count that as a qualified victory for gay rights groups). Within the next year, such amendments are definitely coming to Alabama, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee; they’re likely to qualify for the ballot also in Arizona,  California, Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin. If your state isn’t on that list, it will be soon.

And so, when they come to your state and start lying, say so. Write to your local newspaper about family values groups’ well-documented habit of lying about these amendments. Explain to your neighbors that the family values groups believe that any compromise—civil unions, domestic partnership, even the ability to hold hands in public without getting beaten up—counts as the protected territory of marriage anyway. Argue in favor of full marriage rights for same-sex couples and their families. Remind people that anti-gay forces want to erase lesbians and gay men and our families from the nation’s legal code and social world entirely. If groups like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and their kin could, they would roll our nation back to the good old 1950s, when police raided lesbian and gay bars, newspapers printed the names of those arrested and exposed homos were tossed out of their jobs—the way gay folks live today in, say, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt.

And if the family values folks have to lie to free the United States from the cursed sight of contentedly coupled lesbians and gay men, people who believe that the Declaration of Independence guaranteed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness even to us—well then, lying is what the family values people will do. Stand up and ask them: At long last, have they no shame?