Same-sex shoo-in

A gender-neutral marriage bill passes its first hurdle in the Assembly

Gretchen Bender and Margie Wells (shown here with their daughters, Hannah and Mandi) are vocal advocates of same-sex marriage.

Gretchen Bender and Margie Wells (shown here with their daughters, Hannah and Mandi) are vocal advocates of same-sex marriage.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Before the committee discussion had even begun, gender-neutral marriage was a shoo-in.

The bill, redefining marriage as a civil contract between “two persons” rather than between “a man and a woman,” was foreordained for easy passage in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on the strength of that body’s 2-to-1 Democratic majority. Six of the Democrats on the nine-member committee already had expressed support for the proposed law, signing their names to it as co-authors. And one member, John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, is gay and in a longtime relationship.

So, Tuesday’s lengthy and sometimes-heated hearing was more theater than decision-making.

Still, opponents spoke out against Assembly Bill 19.

“Voters don’t want gay marriage, and it’s being forced down their throats,” Amy Koons, who tracks legislation for the conservative Capitol Resource Institute and showed up to testify Tuesday, said in an interview late last week.

About 250 people attended the Assembly committee meeting on Tuesday, roughly half of them in support of the gender-neutral marriage bill.

During his testimony, Randy Thomasson of the conservative Campaign for Children and Families called Democratic legislators arrogant for trying to counter Proposition 22. That state law, approved by 61.4 percent of voters in March 2000, added these words to California Family Code: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

“This Legislature has zero authority to pass this bill,” Thomasson said. “This Legislature is not superior to the voters.”

Call them arrogant or elitist, but Democrats are also the majority—by ratios of 3-to-2 in the Assembly and 5-to-3 in the Senate. That means that unless some moderate Democrats are swayed, the gender-neutral marriage bill will move swiftly toward passage.

“The existing legal inequity causes real pain to real families,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco who is gay and an author of the bill. “Marriage is a fundamental right of all citizens.”

Assemblyman Dave Jones—the Democrat who represents much of Sacramento, chairs the Judiciary Committee and also co-authored the bill—echoed Leno: “It was not that long ago in this state that you could not marry someone of a different ethnicity. … That was tradition, that was the practice, that was the law, and that was wrong.”

The bill passed out of committee on a party-line vote—only the committee’s three Republicans voted in opposition.

Both Senator Bill Morrow and Assemblyman Ray Haynes, Republicans representing suburban Southern California districts, have proposed amending the state Constitution to solidify Proposition 22’s language. But staffers in those legislators’ offices and other Republicans acknowledge that the amendments—which require a two-thirds vote rather than the simple majority needed for Leno’s—will die when they are first heard in committee hearings scheduled for next month.

Morrow argues that same-sex marriage is not an equal right but instead a “new and special” right, according to an aide in his office. He also counters those who would link the gay-marriage and civil-rights movements, saying that the two causes’ proponents are very different. Lawmakers pushing for marriage rights, such as Leno and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, cannot be likened to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, Morrow said.

Enter Gretchen Bender, a self-described “poster child of the modern lesbian.” The 34-year-old Natomas woman is the chief fiscal officer for a branch of Yolo County government, is a mother of two and has been in a relationship with a woman for five years.

She spoke at Tuesday’s hearing, simply presenting her story to Assembly members and challenging them to give a reason why she shouldn’t be afforded the rights that marriage brings.

“I feel a sense of responsibility to go out there and show people the face of their prejudice,” Bender said last week.

It was on a rainy day during election season, in 2000, that Bender became openly involved in the gay-marriage movement. As she drove down a street in Riverside, her daughter pointed out the many pro-Proposition 22 campaign signs.

“I jumped out of the car and started pulling the signs off the side of the road,” she said. She collected them at home, where she changed the “Yes” to read “No.” Then she swapped out the signs on people’s lawns and on utility poles.

“It definitely put the community in a defensive stance rather than in an offensive stance,” she said of the anti-gay marriage initiative.

Five years later, she said she feels as if that has changed.

“We are much more empowered now, especially since the San Francisco marriages,” she said.

She hopes AB 19 will send a message to the rest of the country that now is the time to allow for gay marriages.

“They say, ‘As goes California, so goes the rest of the nation,’” Bender said.

Still, she recognizes that Tuesday’s win rings largely symbolic. The real and meaningful change must come at a federal level, she said: “It’s a race to the Supreme Court or to the Constitution.”

Baltimore Gonzales, of Fresno, spoke to committee members on Tuesday, telling them about his four-year-long gay relationship and his 12-year-old son.

“There are gay people everywhere,” Gonzales said. “This is not going to go away.”