Forget Marriage! How About a Defense of Bisexuals Act?
by Adam Wills
Since New Year's Eve 1999, the collective consciousness of our nation has been focused on how we are going to celebrate the day we enter the 21st century. Months before Christmas merchandise arrives, party stores are already rolling out the decorations for New Year's 2000. As the fateful day draws ever closer, it'll be difficult to get the public to care about much of anything else.
But after the champagne bottles are fished out of the swimming pools and hot tubs, Californians will return to their normal routines, most of them unaware of what the future holds. A slim two months after January 2000, the voters of California will go to the polls to decide if marriage should be defined solely as a union between one man and one woman.
Unless Californians for Fairness' "No on Knight" campaign can get enough people to gather volunteer support and raise enough money to fight the California Defense of Marriage Act (CDOMA), Golden State queers may wake up on March 8, 2000 to find that same-sex marriage will never have a chance at becoming legal.
It wouldn't exactly be the best way to start off a new century.
DOMA call us, we'll call you
In 1996, President Clinton signed a national version of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. Legislators had introduced DOMA fearing that a Hawai'i lawsuit would open the door to legalization of same-sex marriage. If the Hawai'i Supreme Court had ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was in violation of the state constitution prior to passage of DOMA, other states would have been required to recognize a same sex marriage performed in Hawai'i as legal.
Under the "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution, each state must recognize the public laws, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. But the Defense
of Marriage Act handed the states a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card by allowing each state to decide whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Religious groups and conservative legislators immediately took up the crusade to pass anti-gay marriage legislation at the state level to prevent future legalization of same-sex, polygamous, or polyamorous marriages. So far 30 states have passed such legislation.
In California, State Senator William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) has made three unsuccessful bids to push different versions of the Defense of Marriage Act through the California Assembly and the Senate. By Nov. 17, 1998, Knight managed to gather enough signatures to get his legislation on the statewide ballot. If passed, Statute Initiative 819 would change the California Civil Code to read "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."
The grassroots aren't always greener
Private polling has shown that after reading the arguments for and against Knight's initiative, California voters split on the issue at an even 48% each way. With such a strong showing at such an early stage in the campaign, "No on Knight" is hoping that they'll be able to build on that support with the help of contributions and volunteers.
"No on Knight" is anticipating that they will need to raise $5 million to fight their campaign. The funds will go to support television and radio ads, and to organize volunteers at the grassroots level to distribute campaign information throughout California.
While it might sound high, $5 million to fight an anti-gay campaign is a remarkably low figure. In 1998, Basic Rights Oregon was expecting that it would have to raise at least $2.5 million to fight a statewide anti-gay ballot initiative proposed by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the same organization that sponsored Measure 9. Oregon has roughly one tenth the population of California.
In what some call "Astroturf organizing," Sacramento-based political consultants Cavalier and Associates are handling some aspects of Knight's campaign. Knight's signature gathering to get the petition on the ballot was largely handled by Arno Political Consultants and Nevada-based National Voter Outreach, and a majority of the campaign funding has come from religious broadcasting and conservative corporate sources.
The worst strategy "bi" far
In the campaigns to pass DOMA and defeat proposed protections for the sexual minority communities, bisexuals have become a favorite target of anti-gay groups and conservative commentators. The bisexual movement has achieved a dubious visibility in the press in recent years as the community deemed most likely to join the Mormons in calling for the repeal of bigamy laws following the legalization of same-sex marriage.
In 1995, one year before the national Defense of Marriage Act was introduced on Capitol Hill, bisexual stereotypes flew in the House of Representatives. California's own Republican Representative Bob "B-1" Dornan railed against the July 17th Newsweek cover story about bisexuality by throwing out a host of bisexual stereotypes such as "They all have multiple partners."
In the fervor to ensure passage of DOMA, conservative commentators followed in Dornan's footsteps and put legalization of same-sex marriage on a par with incest and bigamy.
On July 16, 1996, in a Boston Globe column about DOMA, Jeff Jacoby wrote, "Some men would prefer two or three wives. Others are attracted to their daughters, or their aunts, or the wife next door. Bisexuals might like a husband and a wife."
September 1996, Chicago Tribune Columnist Linda Bowles wrote, "What will we say to the bisexual who demands the right to marry the man and woman of his choice?"
While Congress argued the finer points of DOMA, they were also considering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that would make job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. Numerous conservatives expressed strong reservations about supporting an employment protection bill that was inclusive of bisexuals. They felt that passage of ENDA would have constituted government endorsement of sexual promiscuity.
A stronger opinion came from Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, who said that ENDA "defines 'sexual orientation' so broadly that all sexual proclivities, from pedophilia to bisexuality, are given special protection."
In an interesting turnaround, the nation's largest bisexual membership and advocacy organization, BiNet USA, recently voted not to support the new version of ENDA being reintroduced into Congress because the bill is not inclusive of transgender concerns. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has also withdrawn its support for the bill for the same reason.
Following DOMA's passage and ENDA's defeat, the stereotype of bisexuals as clandestine bigamists lurking in the shadows of the gay and lesbian movement proliferated among conservatives and the religious right-wing.
In 1997, conservative Jewish commentator Dennis Prager, whose interest in scapegoating bisexuals stretches back to at least 1993, railed against the ordaining of gay rabbis out of fear that it would open the floodgates to increased acceptance of bisexual bigamy.
1998's failed attempt to reintroduce ENDA was labelled by Washington for Traditional Values as "job advocacy for bisexuals."
That same year in a Los Angeles Times interview, California's own Sen. Knight was quick to establish a link between same-sex marriage and bigamy. "If we change the definition [of marriage], then we take the one man and one woman out of it. If three people get together and decide they want to get married, the courts are going to have a hard time denying that relationship."
In the same way that bisexual stereotypes have aided in the passage of DOMA and the defeat of ENDA, there has been a growing trend among conservative and religious groups to include the word "bisexual" in anti-gay ballot initiatives at the state level to ensure stronger support from voters. To a society whose reigning relationship ideal is monogamy, the idea of affording legal protections to a group of people who "want to sleep with anything that moves" is morally reprehensible.
The tip of the iceberg
Despite the presence, and regular enforcement, of bigamy laws in the California Civil Code, Sen. Knight continues to tell voters that the laws aren't adequate enough to prevent someone, like a bisexual, from entering into a marriage with two people.
Given that this scare tactic has been so effective in the past, there's a chance it could succeed once again if the "No on Knight" campaign is unable to reach its goal of raising at least $5 million and developing a large enough pool of volunteers.
For California bisexuals, the "No on Knight" campaign may grow to represent more than just opposition to a discriminatory ballot initiative. Also at stake could be how the gay, lesbian, and heterosexual communities regard bisexuals in the future.
Gone are the days when negative stereotypes about bisexuals only wreaked havoc with an individual's love life. As we enter a new century, those same old stereotypes are influencing the passage or defeat of national and state legislation. Their use by Sen. Knight may have already done a fair amount of damage to the reputation of the California bi community. Whether that damage swells or shrinks in the future depends entirely on the level of intervention on the part of bisexuals coupled with the final outcome of the election.
Adam Wills served as campaign manager for Oregon State Senate Democratic leader Kate Brown in 1994.
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