‘Til Death Do Us Part

Stephen Sass and Steven Hochstadt had been partners for 14 years when they decided to fly from their home in Los Angeles to Canada and officially get married. Though the couple had wed in a Reform Jewish ceremony five years earlier, an Ontario court had just upheld a law legalizing gay marriage, and the two Steves wanted, in Sass’ words, "some official recognition," of a relationship that has been more stable and loving and productive than most marriages.

The court documents they signed had yet to be changed to encompass the new ruling, so the Steves crossed out "husband and wife" and penned in "partner and partner." The service was held in a park near the U.S.-Canada border on July 4, 2003, and the irony of the moment was lost on neither.

"We could see the United States from where we stood," Sass told me.

Even though it was Independence Day, the couple’s liberties did not extend to signing a similar document in a California courthouse.

The Feb. 3 decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to uphold the constitutionality of gay marriage butted up against President Bush’s attack, in his State of the Union address, on "activist judges … forcing their arbitrary will upon the people."

The president’s declaration that, "Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage," reminded me of the quip directed at then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, when he said the same thing.

"Which marriage are you trying to defend," a woman activist asked, "Your first, second or third?"

Those who oppose gay marriage out of religious beliefs have a perfect right to do so. "Most of us do not want the isolation or punishment of homosexuals but will never accept unlimited choice in lifestyles," wrote Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, chancellor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University, in 1995. "The nations which did no longer exist, the people committed to Torah still do."

Though historians — not to mention logicians — might quibble with the rabbi, it is the right of Jews and their Christian and Muslim counterparts to kick homosexuals out from under the marriage canopy. But the case for the state or federal government following their lead is looking flimsier and flimsier. Civil law diverges from religious law in matters of divorce and abortion, but these things are still available to nonbelievers.

Much has been written about the financial, legal and other assorted penalties gay couples face by not being legally married. These range from being denied tax, insurance and inheritance benefits to being denied entry to a loving partner’s sick bed in a hospital.

But beyond issues of law and money, and even basic fairness, is the sense of acceptance and stability that being officially married confers in our society. Committed relationships are the foundation of stable society. Gay marriage activists and their opponents agree on that principle, but opponents feel it necessary — barring any evidence — to deny some people the right to commit in a civil ceremony. A culture that laughs off Britney Spears’ one-day heterosexual marriage but pops a vein over the joining of Sass and Hochstadt is probably closer to decay than Rackman would care to admit. Logic and evidence indicates that legalizing gay marriage would strengthen, not weaken, families.

On Feb. 22, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue, will honor Sass and Hochstadt as exemplars of domestic tranquility and community service. (For more information, call (323) 931-7023 or visit www.bcc-la.org.) BCC will also honor Lambda Legal senior attorneys Jon Davidson and Jennifer Pizer and Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, for their roles in passing AB205, the historic 2003 California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act. In many ways, AB205 goes beyond the Vermont law made famous by Howard Dean’s candidacy.

"We got involved in drafting this bill because so many of the clients we represent in court could have avoided terrible legal ordeals if protections like this were already in place," Pizer told a reporter. "This law obviously won’t solve everything, but it’s a huge step forward."

That huge step forward will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2005, and it currently faces two lawsuits that threaten to derail it.

Jewish groups and individuals need to act and speak in support of it for one simple reason: Barring gays from marriage discriminates against a class of people because of who they are, not because of what they do. And if that doesn’t set off the alarms, what does?

For centuries non-Jewish law treated Jews as an inferior race and, for centuries, white people discriminated against blacks as inferior and, for centuries, straight people have looked upon gays as flawed and fallen and scapegoated them as well. Gays, stereotyped as Jews once were, as lascivious and promiscuous, are denied access to the institution of monogamy.

"It’s the last safe thing to attack," said Sass of homosexuality, "and all we want to do is live our lives."

One day we will look back on our blithe acceptance of discrimination against gays and marvel at our shortsightedness.

"In our denial, in our failure to see one another as one family — indeed as one holy body — we forget Jewish history, we opt for amnesia," said the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a leader of the Reform movement. "We who were Marranos in Madrid, who clung to the closet of assimilation and conversion in order to live without molestation, we cannot deny the demand for gay and lesbian visibility."

As a Jew, you may or may not like homosexuality, but as an American, you should have to live with it.