The following is reprinted from the magazine Washington Watch, Dec. 1989.
While post-election media attention focused on East Coast contests, something potentially momentous happened out West. The gay rights movement, supposedly an unstoppable force that would redefine the meaning of the family, was stopped by the voters in three California cities.
In Irvine, voters turned down the idea of including “sexual orientation” in the town’s human-rights ordinance. In Concord (a suburb of San Francisco), they rejected an ordinance that would have sharply limited non-infected citizens’ rights to protect themselves from AIDS.
But perhaps the most significant victory of them all was in San Francisco itself, where the entire political and media establishment favored the Domestic Partnership Act passed by the city council last summer.
This act would have made unmarried live-together couples – whether opposite or same sex – the legal equivalent of a husband and wife. Participants in such pairings would have been able to register their relationships for a $35 fee (quite a revenue-raising device in Frisco!) and then have had the same rights to hospital visitation, bereavement leave from city jobs, and perhaps even city-paid health benefits for their “domestic partners.”
Just to show what the powers-that-be in San Francisco think of permanence and fidelity in human relationships, a domestic partnership registration would have been revocable at any time by a simple letter from either party.
Last summer, the San Francisco Domestic Partnership Act was carrying all before it. But some pro-family people actually live in San Francisco, and they weren’t about to stand for this. A dynamic coalition of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics collected enough signatures to put the act on the November ballot for a referendum. Voters narrowly defeated it.
The pro-family campaign was a model of coalition politics. Not only did Catholics and Evangelicals come together, but they chose as their chairman a man of generally liberal views, who had raised funds for liberal Democratic state legislators, but who was also an Evangelical and opposed the Domestic Partnership Act.
The pro-gay side was not without its own clerical partisans. Liberal ministers and priests made a very clever argument. The act would strengthen the family, not weaken it, they said, because it would give “a small amount of integrity and dignity to loving and responsible relationships which are ignored in our civil laws.”
One might question whether relationships that are temporary and pleasure-based at their core can be called either loving or responsible. But the fallacy goes further. The pro-gay ministers were asking voters to see the word family as a mere label with no fixed meaning – but, nevertheless, with the power to confer respectability on anything it covers. Thus, make “live-togethers” and “gay” couples “families,” and just like that, they will be respectable.
That doesn’t work because the word family already has a definition. It refers to man and wife bound together by commitments that cannot be broken by mere whim. Such commitments entail sacrifice, and society honors those sacrifices by extending a small range of privileges.
Yet the word family could become definitionless if it is abused the way the secular powers in San Francisco – and elsewhere – want to abuse it.