Two kids and a house in the suburbs, please

Americans are squaring up for a showdown. In Hawaii, two gay men are fighting to have their marriage legalised. In Washington, meanwhile, politicians are rushing to stop the trend spreading. At issue, say gay lobbyists, is their right to a slice of the American dream. By Tim Cornwell Thirty years ago gays rioted for rights. Now their aspirations lie in the suburbs with a mini-van and kids. 'It's us maturing as a subculture, ' says one
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The Independent Online
It is, says one lesbian comic, a bad case of "mad vow disease". A court case in Hawaii that threatens to legalise gay marriage in the US by the back door has charged up a battle royal between gay activists and the religious right. The issue has crystallised all the old uncomfortable arguments about whether gay unions are natural, valid, healthy for couples and children, and truly the equal of the heterosexual life. As gays demand equal rights to wed, conservatives in Congress have leapt to the defence of family values. And much of straight America, if polls are any guideline, seems to be asking: they can't really get married, can they?

Six years ago, Joseph Melillo and Patrick Lagon walked into the Hawaii Department of Health with two other gay couples and asked for a marriage licence. "Pat and I were raised as strict Catholics," said Mr Melillo, in an interview. "We went to church every day. We were taught that you would grow up, get married and live happily after". Melillo and Lagon have lived together for 19 years, and jointly run a food fashion and flower business called Gourmet Associates and Design.They were refused a licence, but this September they are promised their day in court.

Marriage, the state of Hawaii contends, is the union of man and woman for the purposes of procreation. Nonsense, say lawyers for the two men, who are suing on the basis of their rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination. The Hawaiian Supreme Court has already ruled that Hawaii, one of the 50 American states, must show "compelling" reason to discriminate against same-sex couples. That sets a tough legal standard and so, by most accounts, Melillo and Lagon have a good chance of winning the case.

The prospect has elated the gay community, and whetted the appetites of Hawaiian travel agencies. "We are certainly prepared for the rush," says Lisa Sugiyama, whose business, "Always Yours, the Wedding Connection", already runs non-legal but romantic "commitment ceremonies" for gay couples who exchange vows and rings on the beach. "With same- sex marriages, they don't have kids and their disposable income is a lot greater," she says. "They want everything. They want flowers, they want video, they want the limo."

Asked why they want to get married, most gay couples answer defensively, "because we're in love". "I wish you could meet my wife," says Roop Sumal, a young financial manager in Hollywood. "She's here to pick me up at 3pm." They married on Hallowe'en night about a year and a half after they met, and plan to adopt. It wasn't legal, of course - a priest presided ("I think he was Catholic," says Roop, whose parents are Sikh immigrants.) But they have rings, and a certificate to pin on the office wall, along with framed photos of the couple. "Her parents adore me," said Roop, whose "wife" is part Filipino. "They treat me like a daughter in law. They got to know me as a person, not me as a homosexual." They plan a big wedding come victory in Hawaii.

Across the country, however, Republicans have leapt on a crowd-pleaser in an election year. Polls show that while eight out of 10 Americans oppose employment discrimination against gays, seven out of 10 draw the line at them tying the knot. Last week the US House of Representatives voted through the Defence of Marriage Act, which would allow other states not to recognise gay marriages consummated in Hawaii. President Bill Clinton has promised to sign it, though it could well be challenged in the Supreme Court. "He's just a slime ball," says Mr Melillo, who campaigned door- to-door for Clinton in 1992, but like many other gays is deeply disillusioned. "Pandering to the right wing, a gutless wonder."

In the grandstanding debate, most Democrats denounced a waste of Congress time but hedged on the act itself, which would also ban federal government benefits for gay partners. "Mr Speaker," thundered Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia. "We have an institution basic not only to this country's foundation and to its survival but to every Western civilisation, under direct assault by homosexual extremists all across this country, not just in Hawaii ... The American people demand this legislation."

Only Denmark has a national partnership law that extends to gay couples. Under British law a marriage is void if the parties are not male and female. America, Barr said, could not be "the first country in the world to throw the concept of marriage out of the window". It was left to Barney Frank, an openly gay Massachusetts congressman whose political career survived a scandalous liaison with a male prostitute, to fire back. "How does the fact that I love another man and live in a committed relationship with him threaten your marriage?" he demanded. "Are your relations with your spouses of such fragility that the fact that I have a committed, loving relationship with another man jeopardises them? My God, what do you do when the lights go out, sit with the covers over your head? Are you that timid? Are you that frightened?"

Frank believes gay marriage will be a fact of life within 15 years in America. A rising number of people know someone who is gay; even Newt Gingrich's sister is a lesbian. But Frank and other gay thinkers, even as they circle the wagons against the religious right, question the wisdom of taking on the issue now. Some wonder why fellow gays, after rejecting the straitjacket of traditional relationships, are rushing into the institution of marriage. But gay America, says Dean Larkin, the gay father of a teenage girl and leader of a parenting group in Los Angeles called Maybe Baby, is looking to settle down. In the 1970s, he says, "we were really in our adolescent stage, a lot of free sex. In the 1980s we moved into our twenties in a way, sort of coupling up. In the 1990s, we are moving into our thirties" - and addressing, he says, those paternal and maternal instincts that never went away.

"Growing up as an adolescent," says Eric Shore, a Jewish interior designer who has lived for 15 years with another California man, "my dream wasn't about a lifetime of promiscuous sex. It was about being a happy gay man. The values that I grew up with were a family, and marriage, and the good life." Shore says he knew at the age of 13 that he was a homosexual. "People talk about the lack of commitment in modern society, " he says. "We are talking about making commitment."

Thirty years ago gays rioted for rights. These days, Larkin suggests, their aspirations lie in the suburbs with a mini-van and kids, leaving inner city gay enclaves and rubbing shoulders with straight parents at Little League baseball and toddler playgroups. "It's us maturing as a group, as a subculture of society," he says.

As if to prove Larkin's thesis, Judge Richard Denner was this week handling what was, in effect, one of his first gay divorces. Two men, both legal parents of the same young two and a half year old child, neither its biological father, were fighting for custody. The parties, Judge Denner observed cheerfully, are slinging charges like any healthy heterosexual couple: the lawyer for one recently claimed that the other's maid had a violent temper. Both seek to prove they are the primary care-giver; a psychiatrist is evaluating whom the child looks to for emotional substance.

Judge Denner is straight, married for 35 years, and has two straight children. He has no relatives that are gay. But four or five years ago he pioneered in Los Angeles county the granting of double adoptions to gay couples. As a family court judge, he sees that giving a child two parents gives it two people to call on financially; in the current case he can force one partner, a wealthy businessmen, to pay child support if the child goes to the other. "It just didn't seem right," he says, that gay couples could be joint parents in fact but not in law. "They will have children, they will accumulate children, it's not going to stop."

Pop psychology stresses the value of having both father and mother in the home. "But appealing as that is, I don't see the data for that," says Dr Gerald Patterson, a developmental psychologist at the Oregon Social Learning Centre. His research suggests the key variable in the emergence of a well-rounded child is "old-fashioned" parenting, with caring supervision and effective non-physical discipline, whoever provides it. "Gayness is really irrelevant or not to whether a child is going to be OK." Denner says that in his experience of homosexual couples with children, the common pattern is that one parent moves towards the traditional masculine provider role, while the other tends to stay at home with minimal employment. When it comes to homosexual parenting, "people are people, " he says. "Some are good, some are bad."

The issue of child-rearing is central both to the Hawaii case and gay marriage in general. Gail Taylor, a lesbian in Los Angeles, is setting up "Growing Generations", a one-stop shopping service for gays who want to create a family. It will offer adoptions and a surrogacy programme aimed mostly at gay men. The agency finds the surrogate mother, recommends attorneys, doctors, and psychologists. "More and more people are saying, 'we want to have children in our lives, as well as a stable committed relationship'," she says.

Surrogacy takes on average about two years and costs around $45,000, ample evidence of a point that gay parents often make: for them, children are really a matter of choice, and never arrive by mistake. Gay men plan families with elaborate care; in one recent case, a couple mixed both their sperm samples in an in vitro fertilisation with the egg of one woman, then had it implanted in a second, apparently in part to confuse any law suit brought by a biological mother.

Gay marriage would make adoptions easier, but other practical benefits such as pension rights are at stake. Institutions from Stanford University to Disney have extended spousal benefits, including all-important health insurance, to gay partners, but many companies have not. (Disney itself has been threatened with a boycott by Southern Baptists for its "anti- family", "anti-Christian" policy.) Estate taxes are much higher for gay partners, who have no legal standing, than for husbands or wives. And horror stories are told of men being banished from the bedsides of lovers dying of Aids because either a hospital, or hostile relatives, do not recognise the relationship.

John, a gay Los Angeles man who asked that his identity be kept hidden, lived for 13 years and shared two different houses with his lover Frank. When Frank suffered a stroke and spent seven months in a vegetative state before dying, his family challenged John's access rights until they were shown the will in which Frank had left him the bulk of an estate worth $2m dollars. They then fought to take Frank back to an East Coast hospital for treatment, and finally challenged the will itself.

"It was very difficult, it was very hard for me to realise that these people whom I had visited over 13 years in actuality probably despised the relationship," John says. "It was totally wrong. They would not have been able to do it if I was truly his wife. I needed support from them, recognising that I was a widow at that point and in as much loss as any wife would be, and in as much loss as they were."