Republicans again going after gays

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2000

Not that it isn't nifty to hear Republicans ripping at the Velcro that has attached them to the cloth of the religious right. George Bush is finally having second thoughts about Bob Jones. John McCain is describing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as ``agents of intolerance.''

They're talking again about ``compassion'' and inclusion, about the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln. But, I wonder, are they also the party of Pete Knight?

For those of you who do not live in California, Pete Knight is a conservative state senator from Palmdale who has sponsored a divisive ballot initiative to make sure that a same-sex marriage performed in another state will never be legal in California. On Super Tuesday, the Knight Initiative will share the ballot and the attention with George, John, Al and Bill.

Prop 22 offers a gratuitous slap at gays who live in the largest state in the union. It's become the sort of wedge issue that would seem to insult McCain's faith as he described it in Virginia Beach, ``the faith that unites and never divides; the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity.''

While both Democratic candidates oppose Knight, the Republicans favor it. Bush has described Prop 22 as a state issue (shades of the Confederate flag cop-out), while acknowledging he supports the idea. McCain has simply flat-out endorsed the measure.

Knight's aversion to homosexuality has roots and repercussions in his own family. It extended to his gay brother who died of AIDS. It estranged him from his son David, an Air Force Academy graduate, fighter pilot and Gulf War veteran, ever since the day he came out three years ago.

David, a Baltimore cabinetmaker with a long-term partner, remembers painfully, ``For that moment on, my relationship with my father was over. ''

This personal rift is now political. The one namesake that Knight seems proud of is the Knight Initiative, a composite of fourteen little words: ``Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.''

At first glance, these words merely describe the current reality. After all, there are no gay marriages in California or anywhere else. As a Sacramento Bee editorial put it, ``this is a solution in search of a problem.''

But the proponents insist that at some point, in Hawaii or Vermont or elsewhere, a judge will legalize gay marriage. Knight will stop them at the gate. The Golden Gate.

Those who oppose the initiative say that even if gay marriage is never legalized, this initiative has real costs now. Similar legislation has been used in other states to oppose gay adoptions, custody rights, and domestic partner laws.

More to the point, Prop 22 has whomped up anti-gay sentiment. Knight once said with distaste, ``They want to be accepted as normal people living a lifestyle that should be accepted as normal.'' Now we have a referendum on ``normalcy.''

The institutional hierarchies of the Mormon and Catholic churches have signed on and signed big checks. Meanwhile a TV ad campaign includes one spot beamed overtly at Hispanic voters. It shows an elderly Hispanic couple celebrating their 50th anniversary. The implication is that gay couples would break up the party.

If you need more proof that this is a wedge issue consider the lawn warfare going on in some parts of California. In some places, thousands of ``Protect Marriage'' and ``Yes on Knight'' signs have sprung up like crocuses.

They've been stolen, defaced, replaced. And they've been properly read as a NIMBY stake in the ground. One Santa Clara neighborhood littered with Prop 22 lawn signs received a letter from a gay neighbor, asking, ``At least allow me the delusion of living someplace I am not despised.''

Pete Knight, a former test pilot, has kept a rather low profile since he pushed this issue into the public face. But his son has reticently gone public to describe a family tragically torn apart: ``I am deeply sorry that my father feels that he can no longer be a part of my life. I miss him. But I cannot and will not change the person that I am. . . .''

Now that tragedy is being projected onto public stage. In the last days before Super Tuesday, George Bush may be back hawking the big tent party. And John McCain may eloquently swear, ``America is more than the sum of its divided parts and so our party should be. . . . We will be a party as big as the country we serve.''

Meanwhile there's an unnecessary and divisive initiative. Who needs Pat Robertson? In California, the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln is playing to Pete Knight's pew.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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