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 legalize gay 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 tell society 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."
Before he and his brother launched their campaign, Tom says, they participated briefly in the No on Knight campaign but found it "wholly uninspiring." "Ultimately, the Knight Initiative is going to be forgotten by everyone, no matter how it goes, because it's really an insignificant piece of law that will have no effect on anyone's lives," says Tom.
This, I'm afraid, is where I part company with the Hennings. If voters approve it, the Knight Initiative could have a very real impact on many gay lives. Same-sex unions could be legalized at any time in Vermont, Canada, a European country, or some other jurisdiction. California gays could then travel there, get hitched, and return here to actually enjoy equal protection of the laws -- unless Knight manages to block that in advance. That's why it's vital for California progressives -- gay and straight alike -- to take Pete Knight's initiative and shove it straight up his ass.
Moreover, passage of Knight's measure could give conservatives legal ammunition to attack pro-gay laws that are already on the books, such as those relating to domestic partnership and adoption. Indeed, they're doing just that in other states that have approved Knight-like statutes, arguing in court that family-related benefits should be limited to married couples of the opposite sex.
The money behind Knight comes from the Mormon Church and wealthy "family values" yahoos like savings-and-loan heir Howard Ahmanson and Christian radio magnate Edward Atsinger III. These people represent scary forces in America. And I wouldn't want to see them score such a high-profile victory over California's large, well-organized, and relatively affluent gay community -- something the media inevitably would describe as a big setback for the national gay rights movement.
Then there's the little matter of the Hennings' chances of even qualifying for the ballot, much less winning the election.
Do the math. The brothers have until April 20 -- less than four months -- to come up with the 670,000 valid voter signatures needed to qualify. Because lots of people who sign petitions aren't registered to vote, petition circulators usually collect a couple hundred thousand extra signatures as insurance. For the Hennings to get the 1 million signatures they're shooting for, they need an average of 8,333 per day from now until the deadline. But signature-gathering is a very expensive operation, and it usually requires legions of paid gatherers as well as volunteers. Although he's optimistic about raising large amounts of money between now and April, Tom Henning concedes that no financial angels have come forward so far, and that his organizers pay most expenses out of their own pockets.
"It only has a chance of qualifying if they have money," says Sue Burnside, a prominent gay political consultant in L.A. "Signature-gathering in the state of California is not for the [faint]-hearted. ... It could be that they find a couple of people who are really wealthy and think the same way they do and are willing to cough up $100,000 apiece to get the ball rolling. But I don't see how they do it."
Of course, I don't blame the Hennings for what they're trying to do. Gays do need to assert themselves in the face of the Pete Knights of the world. And it'd be great to have a big win on the same-sex marriage front for a change. In just the past few years, Hawaii and Alaska voters rejected same-sex marriage and Congress passed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, declaring that only a man and a woman can marry. Since then, more than 30 states have approved similar laws.
The harsh reality, however, is that the average Joe just isn't ready for gays in tuxedos and wedding dresses. Recent polls have consistently shown that roughly two-thirds of voters nationwide oppose same-sex unions (the figures are somewhat better in California). And even some gays believe that aggressively pursuing the right to marry is a tactical mistake that could provoke a mainstream backlash.
"Like any oppressed group, [gays are] hoping they're not going to be pushing the envelope too far, because most of the people in our community and most of the electorate would rather go very slowly on these major social changes," says Democratic Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl of Encino, an out lesbian. "There is a reluctance to push our agenda too fast, too far."
Kuehl also believes the Hennings' timing is terrible. She rates their initiative as "a sure-fire loser" next year, since most gay activists will be focused on defeating Knight. And if the brothers fail, she says, enemies of the gay movement will seize on that to declare that "no one wants gay marriage" and even gays are unwilling to fight for it.
But take heart, people. Sooner or later, gays will win the right to marry. It's historically inevitable, although it'll take much more blood, sweat, and tears. The breakthrough probably will come in the courts rather than the election booth. Sooner or later, some courageous group of judges is going to proclaim that refusing marriage licenses to gays is unconstitutional discrimination, plain and simple. That's what happened with interracial marriages, which were banned in many states until the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Loving vs. Virginia ruling in 1967.
So good luck, Tom and John. You'll fail but you'll go down in the history books as pioneers, even revolutionaries. You'll make plenty of people think about gay marriage and some will become converts, realizing it's no more a threat to "family stability" than Saturday morning cartoons. You'll help pave the way for that glorious day when gays who love each other can formalize and sanctify their bond, just like straights.
You're beautiful dreamers, and that's not a bad thing to be.