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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gay marriage? Not in the South

Article written and posted on USA Today's blog by David Person, columnist for The Huntsville Times and host of the daily radio show on WEUP-AM. He also is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

In the region where the seeds of the civil rights movement were sown, gay rights are still a foreign concept

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. —Lauren Martin, 17, and Chelsea Overstreet, 18, have matching rings. They each wear the shiny, silvery circles on the fourth finger of their respective left hands.

They exchanged the rings —they call them "promise rings" —in front of their families. One day, if all goes well, they'll get engaged and then married.

But not here. Lauren and Chelsea are gay, and Alabama is one of 24 states that have banned same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment and by statute. The biggest clump of these, 10 states, are in the South.

Chelsea remains undaunted. "If I could get married tomorrow, I would," she said.

To do so, she'd have to hop on a plane or hunker down for a long car ride. Only Massachusetts and most recently California —at least for now —will marry same-sex couples.

The upcoming presidential election won't make things easier for Lauren and Chelsea. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain supports gay marriage. While Obama does favor civil unions, McCain backs the November ballot initiative in California to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

If Lauren and Chelsea married and decided to return to their home in Scottsboro, their marriage wouldn't be recognized by the state. And this, unfortunately, is exactly how most Alabama voters and politicians want it.

A 2005 statewide poll by Gerald Johnson of the Capital Survey Research Center, the most recent available on the issue, found that nearly 87% of respondents support allowing only heterosexual couples to marry. More than 71% oppose civil unions for gay men and lesbians. And nearly 53% oppose making sure that gays have the same rights as straights.

In 2006, 82% of Alabama voters supported the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Alabama is not unique among Southern states. The Pew Research Center found that 64% of Southerners believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, a percentage higher than in any other region of the country.

Attribute this to the high percentages of evangelical Protestants, white and black, who live in the South. In the 10 Southern states that have banned gay and lesbian marriage by constitutional amendment and by statute, their presence dominates, ranging from at least 31% of the population to 51%.

By contrast, very few same-sex couples live in these 10 states —at least those like Lauren and Chelsea who openly acknowledge it. Georgia has the highest percentage of all of them, a mere 1.1%. Maybe this is what makes it so easy to support openly discriminating against gay men and lesbians.

Ironically, Southern states were the main battleground in another fight for civil rights 40 years ago. Well before her death in 2006, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, an Alabama native and the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., began speaking out for gay rights and same-sex marriage. Few acknowledge this part of her legacy.

"Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union," she said during a speech at the Richard Stockon College of New Jersey in 2004. "A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing, and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages."

Alabama and other Southern states are the norm, rather than the exception, in discriminating against lesbians and gay men. Nearly all 50 states restrict gay rights, same-sex marriage or civil unions. But some Alabama officials have been especially provocative when doing so.

Former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore —who was later ousted for defying a federal judge's order to move a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building —in a concurring opinion in a 2002 child custody case in which the mother was a lesbian, wrote: "Homosexual conduct is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God upon which this nation and our laws are predicated. Such conduct violates both the criminal and civil laws of this state and is destructive to a basic building block of society —the family."

In 2005, state Rep. Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa introduced a bill that would have banned from public schools any books or plays written by gay authors or that feature gay characters. He told CBS that he was alarmed by the "homosexual agenda" that he found in various books. Thankfully, the bill died without a vote.

Meanwhile, tolerance has made small steps of progress since Allen sponsored his ill-fated bill. Jefferson County voters elected the state's first openly gay legislator, Patricia Todd, in 2006.

And thanks to a court order, Lauren and Chelsea were able to go to the prom at Scottsboro High this spring. Of course when they arrived, Chelsea recounted, all eyes were on them.

"The whole room stopped," she said.

Some of their schoolmates expressed support. Others just stared.

Nevertheless, Lauren and Chelsea have not let the opposition stop them. And they and other same-sex couples have found support in some places. When Sarah Collins, Chelsea's mom, began attending the Rock church in Scottsboro, she said she told them that her daughter is gay. "They said she's welcome here," Collins said.

Surely, Coretta Scott King would have been proud.

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