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I love it when guys like John and Tom Henning muscle their way into California politics.
John, 37, is a button-down Century City business lawyer. His 34-year-old brother, Tom, teaches physics at an inner-city high school in San Francisco. But don't be fooled by their mild-mannered appearances.
The Hennings are political bomb throwers, armed peasants running amok in the Winter Palace. People like them emerge on California's political stage every once in a while to remind us of how grass-roots agitators can sometimes dramatically alter the terms of debate on major social issues.
Both Hennings are gay. Last summer, the brothers and some of their friends were talking about how sick they were of watching right-wing politicians walk all over gays to advance their own agendas. In particular, they were sick of state Sen. William "Pete" Knight, the Palmdale Republican who's sponsoring a March ballot initiative that would deny legal recognition to same-sex marriages performed outside California.
The brothers decided to take the offensive against Knight and gay-bashing cretins like him. They cooked up their own ballot initiative to legalizegay marriage in California. The measure is apparently the first of its kind in the United States. Now the Hennings are trying to collect enough voter signatures to get their initiative on next November's ballot.
It's a poetic stroke. At the very time that an archconservative blowhard is trying to screw gays on a major wedge issue, two gay unknowns jump into the fray and turn the tables on him. It's as if a slave had grabbed the master's whip from his hand in the middle of a beating.
The Hennings launched their campaign on Thanksgiving Day, hitting the streets and asking voters to sign their petitions. They set up a sophisticated Web site (www.samesexmarriage.org) where you can sign up as a volunteer, download petitions for your friends and family to sign, or make a financial contribution. The brothers plan to use coffeehouses as organizing centers, and to pitch their initiative hard to young people, particularly California's 500,000 college students, who are generally more receptive to the idea of queer marriage than their elders.
"The larger [gay] organizations are not really positioned to respond to something that really comes out of the blue, that comes straight from individuals and is not part of their strategy or their process," says Tom. "But I think you may agree that the best movements and the most important changes do come out of individuals, and not out of large established organizations. They're more about the status quo, and this, oddly enough, is a radical act."
The Hennings' initiative would trump Knight's. With his Proposition 22, Knight wants to change state law so that gay marriages performed in other jurisdictions would not be valid in California. Although gays cannot legally marry anywhere in the world at the moment, they may soon be permitted to by judges or legislators in some other state or nation. (A gay marriage case is pending before the Vermont Supreme Court, and a recent poll showed a majority of Canadians in favor of gay marriage.) If both measures passed, the Hennings', as a state constitutional amendment, would supersede Knight's.
Now this isn't just a matter of gays wanting to throw rice at each other. Marriage is not only a fundamental human right, it is a crucial civil right. Because they are legally barred from the altar, gays face discrimination in a host of ways. Whether they're trying to adopt children, get health insurance, divide community property, share pensions, or obtain a green card for a lover, they have fewer legal rights than married couples.
And that's exactly what infuriates the Hennings. They're tired of gays always being on the defensive, always fending off an outrageous attack by some Bible-thumping bozo. They want gays to tellsociety what they want, and then go out and get it. And rank-and-file gays, they say, couldn't be more enthusiastic about what they're doing.
"We have people coming up to us saying, 'I've been waiting years for this, I'll do anything to help you out,'" says Tom. "We do tabling [in San Francisco's heavily gay Castro District] and people are constantly coming up to us and wanting to volunteer. When you see that petition in your hands, it's a very powerful thing."
Tom has been involved in queer politics for 15 years. But in that time, he says, gay political leaders have moved further and further away from the street-level activism that put their movement on the map beginning in the late 1960s. "There's no spark left," he says. "It's all about reading the polls, and taking the right people to lunch, and back-scratching in the Legislature to get things done, or creeping things through the courts. I mean, where's the desires of the millions and millions of gay Californians being expressed by the current leadership? I just don't see it."
Besides gays, the Hennings plan to enlist many college students and other young people in their fledgling political organization. One who has already signed up is Beth Hoffman, a 22-year-old USC graduate student.
Hoffman, who happens to be straight, views same-sex marriage as "a basic civil rights issue. It's no different than, say, interracial marriage, which a couple decades ago was considered illegal and was also considered to be pretty radical. So basically I think it's just an extension of civil rights work that started in the '60s and it's something that should have happened awhile ago. ... I didn't get a chance to work on the civil rights stuff since I wasn't around, I wasn't born. So it's kind of a good opportunity now."