By Lisa Keen
It sounds like the brainchild of an ultra-conservative activist. A group in Washington State has initiated an effort to secure a ballot measure this November that seeks to require couples applying for marriage licenses to first prove they are capable of begetting a child. It appears to be another way of banning same-sex marriage, but state law already does that, and this proposal would go another step: it would annul marriages which do not yield a biological offspring.
The surprise sponsor? A pro-gay group.
The proposed initiative won’t be on the ballot unless the group – the “Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance” — can collect more than 200,000 signatures by July. That’s a hefty goal for a new, relatively small, and unfunded group of activists. But the group’s organizer, 39-year-old California born computer tech Gregory Gadlow, says they will start circulating petitions this week. He also hopes to try for two other initiatives – one to prohibit divorce for married couples who have children and one which would stipulate that unmarried heterosexual couples who have children are automatically considered legally married.
The motive, he says, is both educational and political.
“We want to educate the people about the reasons used to discriminate with regards to marriage,” he says, “and we want to make a clear statement on how much this discrimination hurts. If we can also bring about a positive change, all the better.”
Gadlow says he was very angry over the use of procreation as a rationale for banning same-sex marriages. It’s a rationale used my many courts and anti-gay activists, and it was used by the Washington State Supreme Court last July when it upheld the state’s “Defense of Marriage Act.”
The plurality in that ruling said the Washington legislature had a right to discriminate against same-sex couples because it “was entitled to believe that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples furthers procreation….”
The natural extension of justification, Gadlow says, is that marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples who can prove they are capable of giving birth to children and who then do so.
But Gadlow isn’t so much interested in dictating heterosexual procreation decisions as he is in illustrating to them how unfair and unreasonable the procreation argument is. And he hopes the procreation initiative will prompt them to take a closer look and talk about it. So far, it’s working. Gadlow submitted papers for the initiative to the Secretary of State Jan. 25 and sent out press releases. Within a few days, a local weekly paper picked up on “the buzz,” he says, and did a commentary about it that caught the attention of Seattle dailies. After they ran a story on Feb. 6, it was quickly picked up by Associated Press, CBS, and other media around the country.
The reaction has been mixed –anger from both the gay and anti-gay people, and encouragement and applause from some in the gay community.
“We have gotten a lot of negative reaction, ranging from the expected all-caps rants quoting the King James Bible to angry letters filled with accusations of stripping civil rights to thoughtful commentaries about how this is likely to backfire on us and on the cause of equal marriage,” says Gadlow. “We have also gotten a lot of positive reaction, running the gamut from offers to send us money to requests for petitions to elegies on our `masterful’ use of satire in the cause of political commentary.”
Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national Freedom to Marry group, says the initiative has real educational value.
“It’s already triggered news stories all around the country and invited people to think through how would they feel if this kind of bogus reason were applied across the board,” says Wolfson. “I wouldn’t vote for it and I wouldn’t sign the petition, but I’m happy to have the conversation.”
Davina Kotulski, executive director of the national Marriage Equality group, agrees “it’s important to educate the public as to how unfair” the same-sex marriage bans are.
“My only concern,” she said, “is that it might be there are some people out there who agree with this…. Some propose we never allow divorce and want there to be covenant marriages, so some right-wing people might support this.”
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman had not yet heard of the proposed initiative when recently reached by a reporter, but he sees potential problems. For one thing, says Foreman, the resources of most gay groups are already stretched thin fending off anti-gay marriage measures. In Washington state alone, anti-gay activists have introduced a ballot measure seeking to amend the state constitution this year to ban same-sex marriage and pro-gay activists have introduced a bill to amend state law to recognize it.
For another, says Foreman, the initiative may turn off the very people it is trying to persuade.
“The reality is most surveys and focus groups and polls show that the way to move the middle is with positive educational messages, not attacking or reactive ones,” says Foreman. “As delicious as the idea is to point out the hypocrisy behind ‘the sanctity of marriage’ argument, we don’t have the resources, and data indicates it would backfire on us.”