Thursday, April 26, 2007

As New England recognizes gay couples, Kansas may not be far behind

By Diane Silver

My headline may be a bit overly optimistic, but I suspect that with enough work from fair-minded Kansans, this state can pass laws providing basic fairness to lesbian and gay couples and their children. I think we can do it within the next decade, if not sooner.

The news from New England is that the New Hampshire legislature is poised to pass a civil union bill that would grant same-sex couples virtually all the rights of marriage. This will make New England the first region in the country where every state has granted some form of legal rights to lesbian and gay couples. New Hampshire's action is particularly significant because that state is the region's Republican stronghold.

Today in Kansas we aren't even close to passing civil unions or any other legal recognition. The city of Lawrence -- the state's liberal bastion -- is debating an ordinance that would, in essence, create nothing more than a list of names. The proposal creating a domestic partner registry for both gay and straight couples also explicitly notes that the registry does NOT grant any legal rights to those who register.

It's a fact: We don't yet have the political muscle to win passage of protection for our families in the Sunflower State. But there has always been an undercurrent of fairness in this state.

Even out here in red-state central where the religious right seems to have a stranglehold, many folks believe that people who love each other should be allowed to visit each other in the hospital. They know that families shouldn't be broken apart, children shouldn't be torn from parents and that people who pay taxes and follow the law deserve equal protection under that law. They know that all members of a family should have access to health insurance and other benefits offered by employers.

I didn't used to believe that Kansas would ever support our families. Oddly enough, my opinion changed in 2004 when the far right started pushing for a ban on same-sex marriage. They eventually succeeded in winning a constitutional ban on marriage and civil unions, but even with that failure, we won.

Oh yes, our families were hurt horribly. I don't deny the suffering the ban has caused. But what truly shocked me was how much support we have. Because of the religious right's push for the marriage ban, we found each other. Because of that, the political landscape of this state looks far different today than it did just a few years ago.

We have support in the Legislature. We have support in political parties, both Republican and Democrat. We have support on main street, and yes, we even have support in small prairie towns. We may well have more support for legal fairness than anyone imagines.

The problem, though, is that many of our supporters are too afraid to be public. When we lobbied lawmakers for legal fairness, far more than we ever imagined said they supported us. However, they refused to vote with us because they feared political retribution from the religious right. Businessmen refused then and refuse now to speak publicly because they fear the same retribution and/or Fred Phelps pickets.

But New Hampshire is showing the way. This quote from The Washington Post really struck me.
"I just don't think it's a major issue anymore," said Jim Lupien, 40, a lifelong Republican and owner of the Cool Moose Creamery & Candy Store on Concord's old-style Main Street. "Vermont did it, and then Massachusetts, and people around here just started thinking, 'Okay, what's the big deal?' I'm not pro-gay, but that's no reason to deny them their rights."

In Kansas, I think there actually are more people who are pro-gay than most folks would think. And the number of people who would agree with Jim Lupien has to be staggering.

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