In a move that has angered many in the gay and lesbian community, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone has said that he personally opposes same-sex marriages and is considering voting for a proposed "Defense of Marriage" bill that would allow states to withhold legal recognition of such unions.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Democrat said that while he opposes discrimination, he did not consider denial of same-sex marriages to be discriminatory. "The idea of same-sex marriage goes beyond the issue of prevention of discrimination," he said.Gay and lesbian marriage is not legal in any state, but courts in Hawaii may soon rule that same-sex marriages in that state are permissible. That has critics worried that the U.S. Constitution would then require every state to legally honor those marriages.
Wellstone, who has always had strong support from the gay and lesbian community, announced his position at a "Come Out for Wellstone" fund-raiser organized by several dozen of the state's most prominent gays and lesbians. He faces re-election this fall in a race that is a top target nationally for Republicans.
More than 300 people packed a cafe in Minneapolis late last week to hear a stump speech from the beloved progressive whom many had supported when Wellstone was still just a firebrand professor walking picket lines and protest marches.
But when the topic of same-sex marriage arose, Wellstone shocked the crowd by telling them that he was raised to believe that marriage was reserved for the union of one man and one woman.
The reaction, said those who attended the event, was swift and intense. Several in the crowd hissed at Wellstone, and at least one prominent gay activist and political organizer stalked past Wellstone to a nearby table and snatched back his donation check before leaving. Others walked out while Wellstone was in mid-answer.
"The immediate emotions hit hard," said Jerry Hanson, public policy assistant at the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council.
"People obviously were surprised and angered. I saw a lot of shaking heads and frowning faces."
Michael Krause, a Democratic activist, said Wellstone's statement has wounded gay and lesbian loyalists deeply and needlessly. "This was a sophisticated crowd," Krause said.
"He could have told them that he was considering signing the bill because he couldn't afford to have the religious right attack him on this issue, that he needed those suburban middle-class voters. I think they would have accepted that."
While same-sex marriage has not been a front-burner issue for gays and lesbians nationally, it nevertheless is one that raises deep feelings. Some gays and lesbians say they want nothing to do with what they consider the bankrupt institution of marriage, that it is a device of heterosexuals and should be left to them.
But a growing number - particularly those in long-term relationships and with children - crave the legal recognition and societal approval that marriage brings.
Nationally, President Clinton has been lambasted by gay-rights organizations for saying that he would sign the bill in its present form. In addition to allowing states to deny recognition of same-sex marriages, the proposed bill would bar federal recognition of such marriages. The bill was passed by a House subcommittee last week and seems likely to pass both chambers of Congress without substantional opposition.
Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager, said Wellstone's statement was not part of any strategy to distance himself from issues that would supply ammunition to conservative opponents.
"People have come to expect and respect the fact that Paul will always be honest with them. That's what he was last Thursday. In terms of the political fallout, I don't know. He hasn't made a final decision on the bill.
"They (gays and lesbians) know this is going to be a tough election and I expect they'll rally behind Paul even if they have disagreements along the way."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)