Support for same-sex marriage gains ground

Lanae and Laura Erickson Hatalsky walked down the aisle together almost a year ago. As they prepare to celebrate their anniversary, on April 28, the women have much to reflect on and be grateful for.


Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Next month, the Supreme Court will hear two cases dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage — one that challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the other on California’s controversial Proposition 8.

“We will be a bundle of nerves,” Lanae readily admits as the hearing date approaches.

Lanae is director of social policy and politics at the centrist group Third Way. Laura is an economic policy adviser for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). They both arrived separately in Washington, D.C., in 2006 and met in March the following year. Months into the relationship, they knew they had found their soul mate. Laura proposed, and they tied the knot at Josephine Butler Parks Center overlooking Meridian Hill Park in Northwest D.C.

“Laura walked in with her dad first. Then I arrived,” recalled Lanae. “And we walked down the aisle together.”

One hundred and twenty-four of their closest friends and family bore witness to the solemn occasion. 

At a rehearsal dinner the previous night, the couple signed a katuba — a Jewish marriage contract — and had 20 of their friends and family co-sign.

“Marriage takes a lot of support. We were committed to that and those that signed were committed to supporting us,” Lanae said.

That public declaration of commitment was and remains key for the couple. It wasn’t just about the right to get married or a special carve-out for gay couples, they said, but rather to stay married as their parents have.

“I believe in that family model, and I am striving for that,” Laura said. “We both try to replicate that.”

This emphasis on commitment is just one factor that has helped to move the needle steadily upward when it comes to the acceptance of same-sex marriage, says Gary Gates, a national expert in LGBT demographics at the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law.

“There was a shift in rhetoric from the early campaigns that just talked about same-sex couples wanting equal rights to these same-sex couples that look a lot like you and share your values,” Gates said.

Equally important has been President Obama’s evolution on the subject.

“This was the first election cycle where one of the main party candidates came out in support of it,” said Gates.

Add in the changing demographics of the electorate — younger voters and women were more likely to support same-sex marriage in 2012 — and the influence of pop culture, and you have a clear trend.

Current support for same sex-marriage hovers around 50 percent. Gallup’s tracking poll prior to last year’s presidential election showed 53 percent in favor.

Today, there are 650,000 couples in the United States — married and unmarried — according to 2010 Census, and Gates estimates that there are somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 married same-sex couples.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is one of them. The freshman congressman filled the House seat of Tammy Baldwin, who made history in her own right when she became the first openly gay woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate in November.

“We come from a unique area in terms of having ‘out’ people elected to office. Our history goes back pretty far,” Pocan said of the liberal tradition in his Madison district.

Pocan, who was married in Toronto in 2006, was sworn in Jan. 3. Afterward, at a mock swearing-in ceremony, he introduced his husband, Phil, to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“This is my husband, Phil,” Pocan recalled saying to the Speaker.

It was a defining moment for the freshman, important to him personally despite some hurdles that remain ahead. Like all married members of Congress, Pocan’s husband received a spousal pin, which allows for certain access on Capitol Hill and participation on congressional delegation trips. But because his marriage is not recognized by Congress, Pocan’s healthcare plan does not include his husband.

“So I had to have a separate HMO package for him,” Pocan said. “An institute like this moves slowly. I understand that. I personally accept that. Part of what I have to do is make sure people get to know me,” he said.

To help him navigate the maze ahead, Pocan has sought the counsel of former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and his husband, Jim Ready.

“Jim’s advice has been to ‘show no fear. You have every right as a spouse,’ ” he said.

But Pocan says “the real test will be with people on the extremes.”

“I hope the Allen Wests of the Congress are fewer,” he said, referring to the firebrand Florida Republican who lost his seat in November. “There is an educational component to this.”

California Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, who is a vice chairman of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, says the election of Pocan and six other gay, lesbian or bisexual members of Congress in November is welcome and sorely needed on Capitol Hill.

“Without that experience and input from people with different backgrounds, we are unable to translate that into policy language. ... Their presence makes the opportunity for policymaking more focused. Their presence is really important,” Honda said.

Pocan said he is grateful to the president for his changed views on the issue and for mentioning it in his second inaugural address last month.

“The inauguration speech set a new high bar for equality in our country. ... It’s a moment I will never forget,” Pocan said.

But Richard Tisei, a Republican from Massachusetts who came up short in his effort to unseat Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) in November, argued that the president was just bowing to the inevitable.

“Politicians in general are behind where the public is. The president was just stating the obvious when he had his epiphany or awakening during the campaign. I think he’s going through the same process as other Americans,” said Tisei.

Tisei, who is gay, said he’s frustrated by the Republican Party’s stance on the issue, arguing that it’s at odds with its own history and that the national brand hurt fellow Republican Scott Brown’s chances of reelection in the Massachusetts Senate race last November.

“We’re not right on this issue. We need to change,” Tisei urged. “The Republican Party has been the party that has always extended rights. [Defending DOMA] is a contradiction and flies in the face of that.”

Tisei went further, and had this warning for his party about changing demographics:

“The Republican Party would be wise to recognize that the younger generation is more comfortable with it [same-sex marriage] and that support is only going to grow for it,” said Tisei.

However, Republicans are not likely to shift on the issue until after the Supreme Court delivers its opinions in June.  Still, Tisei is optimistic about the court’s ruling.

“I don’t think they’ll necessarily be following public opinion.  But if they just stick to the constitutional issues, they’ll come down on the right side,” he said.