Gay marriage, the incremental approach

All benefits (and punishments), just shy of the word "marriage"
All benefits (and punishments), just shy of the word "marriage"

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons appeared a couple of years ago. An elderly husband and wife are sitting in their living room watching the news on TV. The man says: "Gays and lesbians getting married &mdash haven't they suffered enough?"

Not in Washington, apparently. Gay leaders in Olympia have worked tirelessly in recent years to gain access to as much of the marriage institution as they possibility can (survivor rights, pension benefits, adoption privileges, to name just a few). Rather remarkably, if only because they've encountered such little opposition, they are on the verge of winning every marriage benefit that exists.

Let the suffering begin!

Consider how quickly this all came about. Here in Washington, gay lawmakers succeeded in creating "domestic partnerships" with some basic marriage rights attached in 2007; last year they won several more benefits; and this past week they proposed a law (widely expected to pass) that will finish the job.

We are therefore within months of same-sex couples in this state having all the rights and responsibilities of married ones (nearly 450 separate ones, if you can believe it). The only thing that would be different is what those unions are called, domestic partnerships vs. marriages.

Washington would be only the fourth state in the country to provide full marriage benefits to same sex couples. The others are New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont. Two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, actually allow gay marriage outright. (California famously enacted it and had it overturned by a ballot measure last fall.)

It's a notable turn of events for Washington, given that just a decade ago (1998) Olympia lawmakers passed the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting same-sex unions. It's doubtful that many of them would have expected the end-run that has happened in the intervening years.

The incremental approach here in Washington was pursued deliberately: Add some rights every year as people grow more comfortable with the idea, rather than pushing for marriage all at once. Once the full-benefited domestic partnerships are around a few years, gay leaders can make a strong run at the name change as well. They'll argue that merging domestic partnerships into marriage would be just a technicality, as all the rights and responsibilities have already been conferred.

"Let's be unambiguous in our discussion of this issue," says gay State Rep. Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver), "words are extremely important. Marriage is the word and civil marriage is the goal."

Moeller has actually introduced legislation this session that would allow gay marriage, but it's not being pushed hard and it's not expected to pass. Even most gay leaders believe the time hasn't come. The general public still needs to be acclimated. Just look at what happened last fall where voters in three states, California, Arizona, and Florida supported constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

Some in the gay community will no doubt be satisfied just to have all the benefits of marriage, even if they can't have the name to go with it. But gay leaders, like Moeller, are clearly on a mission. In this they part ways with the sentiments expressed in one of Shakespeare's most memorable lines (from Romeo & Juliet): "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Uh uh, they contend, the term "marriage" has a fragrance all unto itself.


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