Time favors gay-marriage proponents
SF Chronicle, Saturday, September 10, 2005
Social conservatives in California are feeling pretty cheerful now
that the governor has said he will veto the same-sex marriage bill.
And yes, across the country, 11 states, including California, have
passed bans on same-sex marriage.
But here's some advice: Enjoy it now. It isn't going to last.
The right wing is missing a powerful, building undercurrent. Simply
put, at this point, much of the younger generation has probably gone
to school with openly gay peers. They also see them in the workplace
and even in their neighborhoods. And they don't seem that scary.
Last spring, a friend of Eitan Bencuya, a third-year student at UC
Berkeley and reporter for the Daily Californian student paper, told
him that he was gay. Bencuya's reaction? Hum, that's interesting.
"It's not even a distinguishing factor any more,'' says Bencuya, who
is straight. "It is much more common and acceptable, and less
something to feel guilty about.''
Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who wrote the same-sex
marriage bill, says polls bear out what Bencuya is saying.
"Those over 65 oppose same-sex marriage,'' Leno says. "But those under
35 support it -- and more strongly than those over 65 oppose it.''
While the battle for legal same-sex marriage may rage for years, it
seems clear there is a general shift toward support of committed
relationships between same-sex partners.
Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, once a focus of controversy in high
schools, have become commonplace. Riley Snorton of the national Gay,
Lesbian, Straight Education Network in New York, which helps sponsor
the clubs, says there are some 3,000 chapters nationwide and more than
400 in California, including in such seemingly conservative
communities as Fresno, Clovis and Visalia.
In the Bay Area, chapters range from exclusive Bishop O'Dowd in the
East Bay to Lowell High in San Francisco and Palo Alto High on the
Peninsula. Basically, a school that does not have some sort of
gay-awareness organization is the exception.
That's not good news for conservatives.
It isn't just that the under-35s are moving up while the over-65s are
moving out. The real problem is that if the anti-gay marriage faction
can't count on people being shocked and horrified by gays, they really
don't have much to fall back on. There's no economic or public safety
reason to keep two people who love each other from getting married. It
just comes down to "I don't like the idea so you can't do it.''
Which, when you think about it, was pretty much the argument against
But wait, it gets worse for the right. It isn't just Generation X and
Y who support same-sex couples and families. This is happening in that
outpost of traditional values -- the suburbs.
Michael Phillips sells real estate in Silicon Valley. He is listed on
gay real estate Web sites but sells to straight buyers, too. His point
is, when it comes to houses, neighborhoods and schools, there isn't
"Once you get those kids and a house and a mortgage,'' Phillips says,
"people say, you know, they're not that much different from us.''
Phillips has been with his partner for 22 years, and they are raising
a teenage son. Confirmed Catholics, they go to Mass once a week and
volunteer in the parish.
"People are very nice to us. I have never had anyone say we don't
belong,'' says Phillips. "I mean, we aren't in there holding hands,
but I also don't think people are stupid. They know what is going
And that's another point. The face of the person who is gay has
changed -- or at least the perception. Ellen DeGeneres, virtually
drummed out of television when she revealed she was lesbian, is now
hosting a national talk show. Her audience, which looks like moms from
Middle America, whoops wildly when she steps on stage. They love
And in December, Ang Lee, Academy Award-nominated director, will
premier "Brokeback Mountain.'' It is the story of two ranch hands who
unexpectedly find a mutual attraction. Or, as one reviewer put it,
"Cowboys in love -- with each other.'' Is there a more powerful icon
of American masculinity than the cowboy? And this is not a cheap
independent release, but a full feature from Paramount Pictures.
To someone like Cal student Bencuya, it is an example of how the
current climate is " ... changing the stigma. Gays actually fall in
love and have committed relationships. It is not like (the movie and
play) 'Birdcage' with the guy in the feather boa.''
Instead, they may be the neighbors down the street. Phillips says he
and his partner got to know a married couple while attending youth
sports events. The pair ended up divorcing with the wife taking the
kids. Later, the father learned that his son was gay. He told Phillips
it was a surprise, but he was getting through it.
"But I would never have been in a position to accept it,'' the father
said, "if I hadn't known you two guys.''
That's no surprise to Leno.
"Every poll shows that people who know someone who is gay or lesbian
are much less discriminatory,'' he says.
Now take that experience and multiply it across the country. Tell me a
law is going to overcome it.
C.W. Nevius' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Bay Area
section and in East Bay Life on Fridays. E-mail him at