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COKIE AND STEVEN ROBERTS: Gay marriage furor destined to fade

by stevecokie@gmail.com on February 26, 2012 12:00 AM

John Bohanan opposed a same-sex marriage law in the Maryland Legislature last year, and the measure lost. But earlier this month, the Democratic lawmaker decided to change his vote, and with his help, the bill narrowly passed.

"Once I began to look at this through the eyes of my own kids and other young people, it became pretty clear," the father of four sons, ages 17 to 21, told The Washington Post. "You want them to have love, and if that's how they want to express it, you want them to be able to do it openly."

Wade Kach, a conservative Republican, backed the marriage measure after a hearing at which gay couples talked poignantly about forming families of their own. "As a pro-life Republican, I believe it's my responsibility to make sure children are taken care of," he explained. "I left that hearing a changed person."

Bohanan and Kach reflect a national tide that is running swiftly in favor of gay marriage. As more legislators hear the arguments -- from their neighbors, their constituents, their own family members -- they are realizing that this issue is not about stereotypes or abstractions, but about real people living real lives and taking care of real kids.

Washington recently became the seventh state (plus the District of Columbia) to legalize same-sex unions. Maryland will soon become the eighth. The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, but he felt compelled to appoint an ombudsman to correct complaints against the state's existing civil union law.

Christie wants to run for president, and no Republican can survive the primaries by supporting gay marriage. But he could pay a long-term price. Eventually, said New Jersey's Assembly speaker, Sheila Oliver, "The governor will see that he was on the wrong side of justice."

Last year, for the first time, national polls showed a majority of Americans favoring same-sex marriage. Statistician Nate Silver, writing in The New York Times, estimates that support for the concept is growing by 4 percentage points every year. By the November election, he forecasts, 56 percent will favor legalizing gay unions and only 40 percent will oppose them. Three years ago, the numbers were reversed.

As Bohanan discovered, this shift is driven mainly by young people. According to a recent Pew study, three out of five voters under 30 back same-sex marriage, while only one out of three over 65 share that view. As the conservative columnist George Will likes to say, young people think being gay is about as significant as being left-handed. And that makes them far more tolerant and open-minded than their elders.

The other trend driving acceptance of gay marriage is simply visibility. Most people reading this column, even in the more conservative corners of the country, now know someone who is gay. Harvard law professor Michael J. Klarman made this point in the Los Angeles Times: "As more gays and lesbians come out of the closet, more parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbors and co-workers know or love someone who is gay. Because few people favor discrimination against those they know and love, every gay person coming out of the closet creates more supporters of gay equality."

We know that's true because it happened to us. While we always supported civil unions, we didn't think gay marriage was appropriate or possible until we started talking to young people like Michelle, a former student of Steve's who lives with her partner, Tina, and their young daughter in the Maryland suburbs. It cost them more than $50,000 in fertility treatments and sperm donations before Tina became pregnant -- a very tangible commitment to family values.

Michelle and Tina were legally married in Vermont, but they live in constant fear that the next emergency room nurse, schoolteacher or benefits manager won't recognize or understand their status. Accordingly, they put all their key documents -- adoption papers (Michelle adopted the baby at birth because she had no biological relationship), marriage license, powers of attorney -- on flash drives and cellphones that they carry at all times. "The legal situation is very loose," says Michelle, "so we have to be protected to the hilt."

When same-sex marriage becomes legal in Maryland later this year, Michelle and Tina will be able to relax -- a little. In most states, however, gay couples still don't have the right to make their unions official. And the forces opposing them are well-organized and highly motivated. But those forces are on the wrong side of justice. And history.

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