Beautiful Dreamers

John and Tom Henning hope to beat Sen. William "Pete" Knight at his own game, with a ballot initiative to legalize gay marriage in California

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.

Tom Henning.
Anthony Pidgeon
Tom Henning.

Details

RELATED LINKS

Californians for Same-Sex Marriage
Download petition forms at the official Web site for the proposed ballot initiative.


RELATED STORIES

Holy Homophobia!
Republican state Senator Pete Knight says he has nothing against gays. So why's he working so hard to keep them from getting married in California?
By Jack Cheevers
August 25, 1999


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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 doneed 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 willwin 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.

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