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Bringing the Fight Home

Support and opposition on amendment against gay marriage finds a center in Arlington.

There was a temptation, Bob Witeck said, to get married in May. He’s taking a trip to Toronto that month, with his partner of 10 years, to witness double wedding, and both Witeck and his partner thought about taking part in a similar ceremony.

But Witeck, a native Arlingtonian, is a gay man. He doesn’t want a symbolic wedding. “When I come back, it would make my life a constant conundrum, fighting people who say I’m not married.”

A week after President George Bush threw his support behind an amendment to the Constitution that would bar the marriages of gay men and women, some Arlingtonians are gearing up for a fight, both for and against the amendment.

The county is home to two of Virginia’s three openly gay elected officials, and according to 2000 U.S. Census data, Arlington is the county with the fifth largest number of gay couples per capita. In 1997, County Board members voted to extend equal benefits to unmarried and married dependent partners, including gay partners. That move was struck down by a state court in 1999.

But Arlington was also the birth place of the Arlington Group, a pro-marriage amendment coalition composed of the heads of major conservative and Christian advocacy groups, including Jerry Falwell; Paul Weyrich; Bay Buchanan, sister of former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan; R. Albert Mohler Jr., from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and the heads of the Family Research Council, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Biblical Heritage Institute.

After an initial meeting last July in an Arlington apartment complex, the groups agreed to fund the Marriage Amendment Project. The Marriage Amendment Project is working for ratification of a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as “a union of a man and a woman.”

<b>IT’S IRONIC</b> they would choose Arlington for that first meeting, and for their name, said Jay Fisette, County Board member and a gay man in a two-decade-long relationship with partner Bob Rosen.

Fisette has heard from friends, family and constituents since Bush’s announcement of support for a marriage amendment last Tuesday.

As a gay man, Fisette said he’s had occasion to consider whether he should think seriously about marriage. “My parents were just visiting from Texas, and my dad asked me, ‘Would you get married?’” said Fisette. “We’ve never seriously discussed it. If we had an opportunity here, we might well do it — especially if it’s more than a symbolic statement.”

As an elected official, Fisette said he doesn’t see the marriage amendment as a successful issue. “I think it’s a miscalculation. It’s unprecedented that a president would call for an amendment … limiting rights rather than expanding them.”

He also thought the choice of Arlington as a touchstone for the group fighting for passage of a marriage amendment might backfire.

“To many Arlingtonians, it’s a little bit offensive,” he said of the Arlington Group. “To think that they’ve chosen Arlington … a model of the most progressive social policies. It’s a stark contrast between this intolerant and hate-filled approach [to marriage] and a community that works very well, with its arms open.”

<b>THERE’S NOTHING HATEFUL</b> about the language proposed for a marriage amendment, said Shannon Royce, executive director of the Marriage Amendment Project, now working in the D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council.

“This issue is about traditional marriage,” said Royce. “This is about believing that marriage is between a man and a woman. There is nothing anti- in this message.”

While the marriage amendment might close off the specific avenue of marriage to gay and lesbian couples, she said, it would not outlaw possible commitments for such couples. Civil unions would still be a viable option.

As proposed, the amendment “specifically, deliberately, leaves those questions to state legislatures,” said Royce.

In order to add such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Royce and other pro-amendment groups would have to convince state legislatures of the necessity of such an amendment. “We need 38 states for ratification,” said Royce. “So that’s what we look to pursue.”

In Virginia, a marriage amendment would require a “yea” vote from 67 delegates and 27 senators. “I haven’t specifically analyzed the General Assembly” to see what chances an amendment stands there, said Royce.

<b>HISTORICALLY, ASSEMBLY MEMBERS</b> have been reluctant to make sweeping changes to the U.S. Constitution, said Toni-Michelle Travis, a George Mason University professor specializing in Virginia politics. “I think it would be close, but it would not pass,” said Travis.

Both Travis and Fisette saw the marriage amendment as an issue of convenience, introduced solely for the sake of radicalizing the electorate during a presidential campaign.

But in the Assembly, both houses of the Assembly passed a joint resolution by Fairfax state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37), endorsing the concept of a federal marriage amendment, limiting marriage to a man and a woman.

At the same time, a bill declaring that the state will not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions granted by other states passed the House overwhelmingly.

Proposed by Prince William and Loudoun Del. Robert Marshall (R-13), House Bill 751 was a move to head off same-sex marriages or civil unions conducted in Hawaii, Massachusetts or San Francisco.

In the debate over Cuccinelli’s resolution, Arlington Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49), the only openly gay man ever elected to the Assembly, condemned such moves as frivolous, and antithetical to Virginian founding fathers.

“Our fellow Virginians, Jefferson, Mason, Madison and Monroe envisioned amending the Constitution to guarantee liberties, not to limit them,” said Ebbin in a Jan. 23 speech on the floor of the House. “Amending the Constitution is a serious action that should only be done with great care and deliberation, not done in an emotional overreaction to the hot button and divisive issues of the day.”

In a phone interview this week, Ebbin said he would continue fighting such measures in the Assembly. “I didn’t really expect things down here to be easy, and to change everyone’s mind on arrival. I’m committed to a long course of having Virginia stand for the civil liberties that our founders did.”

<b>MAKING VIRGINIA STAND</b> for civil liberties would help attract business, said Bob Witeck, who founded Witeck-Combs Communications, a public relations firm specializing in selling corporate America to gay America.

“My work is national,” said Witeck. “We represent IBM, Wachovia, American Airlines and others in the gay and lesbian marketplace.”

That keeps his eye on the economics of gay couples. While Arlington has one of the largest concentration of gay couples in America, it is in one of the least progressive states, said Witeck.

Virginia is the only state in the country that specifically prevents businesses from extending insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of employees. That ban has hit home in Arlington this month.

Economic development officials for the county brought the headquarters of the American Psychiatric Association to Rosslyn last year, filling space left vacant when Gannett Newspapers moved out of its two office buildings.

But the APA didn’t realize that move meant giving up same-sex partner insurance coverage. In a letter to the Washington Blade this week, APA medical director James Scully wrote that the APA “is working hard to let other employers know that, as long as the law stands, moving to Virginia is a mistake.”

That could mean a loss of business for the state, said Witeck. “Arlington and other jurisdictions are going to pay the price. People expect, when you have a partner of many years, you can protect them like family.”