BY DAVID BENKOF
A strong case can be made that more same-sex couples would be protected if the gay and lesbian community in New Jersey and elsewhere would jettison the whole marriage campaign and focus on a new, national strategy of "mutual commitments."
IN NEW JERSEY, litigation and lawsuits on behalf of the gay and lesbian community have resulted in civil union status for same-sex couples. Many observers predict that full marriage rights can be achieved in the Garden State as soon as next year.
But in celebrating such advances for gay rights, most of my fellow gays and lesbians have lost sight of the serious setbacks for same-sex couples in states far more hostile to same-sexers than New Jersey.
A strong case can be made that more same-sex couples would be protected if the gay and lesbian community in New Jersey and elsewhere would jettison the whole marriage campaign and focus on a new, national strategy of "mutual commitments" to protect same-sex couples not only in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts, but also in places less welcoming to gays such as Georgia, Nebraska and Texas.
The 30 constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, including Proposition 8 in California, are a direct result of the lawsuits-for-marriage strategy practiced by gays and lesbians since the mid-Nineties, including successful suits in Massachusetts, California and Connecticut. So achieving marriage in three gay-friendly states (two now that Proposition 8 has passed in California) came at the expense of barring marriage in 10 times as many states, many much less hospitable to same-sex couples.
Worse, 18 of the constitutional amendments, in places like Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, bar not only marriage but any kind of rights specifically for same-sex couples. That means that even in gay-popular cities like Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, there can be no benefits for gay and lesbian couples unless and until those statewide amendments are repealed — an unlikely scenario.
Brilliantly, a coalition of concerned politicians from both left and right have come together in Salt Lake City with a plan that can be a model for those concerned about the problems faced by same-sex couples anywhere. Guided by Democratic Mayor Ralph Becker, the "mutual commitments" plan was approved with both liberal and conservative support in the city council and the state legislature. It provides a package of rights, including hospital visitation and health care, to any two people who can show financial interdependence. The pair can be a mother and adult daughter, two straight male roommates or lesbian lovers.
The government doesn't ask — and doesn't care — which.
The Salt Lake City plan relieves the distress of same-sex couples in a way that conservatives and traditional family advocates can embrace. It gives no special recognition to couples based on sexual orientation, but it does enable everyone to designate which one person gets their mutual rights.
This is a profoundly conservative idea. Conservatism is about freedom, so why should the government decide who can visit me in the hospital? I should be the one to make that decision.I propose that my fellow gays and lesbians, in New Jersey and elsewhere, immediately halt all litigation and lobbying to achieve same-sex marriage, and instead push to achieve mutual commitment laws in as many cities and states as possible.
With the promised new bipartisan spirit in Washington, a federal mutual commitment law should also be within reach, covering things like Social Security benefits and survivor's benefits for veterans.
I'm afraid most gays and lesbians may dismiss this proposal, because even though mutual benefits would help far more same-sex couples than a few more marriage victories in gay-friendly states, they are not completely equal.
As Garden State Equality's Steven Goldstein put it two years ago, his side "will settle for nothing less than 100 percent marriage equality."
When New Jersey and other gay-friendly states brook no compromise for the status of same-sex couples, traditionalist voters and legislators in more gay-hostile areas restrict any rights for same-sex couples in their states.
The result is great if you live in Massachusetts; not so good in the South or Midwest.
Weighing the greater good
Surely I'm not the only gay person who thinks the lack of same-sex marriage in an otherwise gay-friendly state like New Jersey is less important than the needs of same-sex couples in every state for rights to hospital visitation, health care and inheritance, among others.
Yet it was precisely our community's push for marriage litigation and lobbying that resulted in the restriction of many of those rights nationwide through constitutional amendments.
It's time for the gay community to reevaluate its priorities and embrace the Salt Lake City plan, which could help the same-sex couples who need it most a lot sooner than a dozen lawsuits ever could.