Both Sides Debate Maine Marriage on Air

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday October 25, 2009

In the final days before Maine voters go to the polls on Nov. 3 to consider a referendum that would reject the law enacted last spring legalizing marriage equality, representatives for both sides are engaged in a series of broadcast debates they hope will influence the outcome.

The latest opinion polls show voters evenly divided, so the forums could be crucial in determining whether couples of the same sex will be able to marry in the Pine Tree State.

The Maine Legislature passed a marriage bill in April. Gov. John Balducci signed it in May, but anti-marriage forces successfully mounted a campaign to get Question 1 on the ballot, giving voters the final say.

Facing off in the series of five live debates--some on TV, others on radio, all online--are Marc Mutty, campaign chair of Yes on One/Stand for Marriage Maine; and Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and a consultant to No on 1/Protect Maine Equality.

Mutty is on loan from his job as public affairs director at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The Church is taking a leading role in the campaign to pass the referendum even though the equal marriage law does not require religious groups to perform same-sex weddings.

A Maine resident, Bonauto successfully argued the case for marriage for gay and lesbian couples before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the landmark Goodridge case.

The first debate was broadcast Oct. 22 on the Maine Public Broadcasting radio network with Susan Sharon, the network's deputy news director, as moderator. Mutty and Bonauto also took questions from phone-in listeners.

Issues discussed included whether the equal marriage law would require teaching about homosexuality in the schools; whether marriage is only for procreation; and whether alternatives, such as civil unions and domestic partnerships, would grant same-sex couples the same benefits.

An exchange between Sharon and Mutty near the end revealed a key potential weakness in the fight against equal marriage. Sharon kicked off the debate by asking why the referendum's supporters are focusing so much on marriage equality's impact on schools.

"If the referendum is defeated there will be much more impetus to discuss gay and lesbian issues in the education of students," Mutty contended. "It'll be taught to students as young as in kindergarten."

Bonauto stressed--and pointedly repeated several times during the debate--that the No on 1 campaign is based on the principle that everyone should be considered equal under the law. "The school issue is a distraction," she said, emphasizing that the statute doesn't require schools to teach about same-sex couples' sexuality, but educators should acknowledge equality. Kids come from all sorts of different families. Schools want to make sure they all are safe and respected."

One caller who has taught sex education classes for 26 years in Maine public schools asked how instructors would handle questions about same-sex relationships. Bonauto pointed out that under policies already in place parents can opt out of such classes for their children. And even if they don't, "You don't have to answer every question. You could say it is something you should discuss with your parents."

Another caller, a Catholic, said she doesn't understand how the new law affects her marriage. "It's going to have an impact over time," Mutty asserted. "The Legislature created a genderless marriage. Procreation is no longer essential. That's a huge change. A family with a father and mother no longer is important. I find that bizarre."

Bonauto pointed out that having children has never been essential to marriage: "The state doesn't care one whit about procreation. Children are being raised by gays and lesbians. Wouldn't you want the same protections for those children that heterosexual families have?"

Later Mutty, responding to another caller, contended that the state issues marriage licenses only to "produce little citizens."

A portion of the debate centered on whether same-sex couples should consider alternatives to marriage, something several callers mentioned.

"There has been no discussion of alternatives to marriage for gay and lesbian people that should be on the table because people working for No on 1 don't want it," Mutty asserted at one point.

Richard, who phoned in from Fayette, asked whether all the money being spent on both sides wouldn't be better spent getting "gay and straight people together to find other ways to do this." Bonauto countered that only marriage offers the protections that would make same-sex couples equal to heterosexual ones.

Sarah Dowling of Freeport called in to talk about why marriage is important to protect her child, Maya, now in third grade. Dowling and her partner Linda were married in a church ceremony 13 years ago, but their union was not recognized by the state.

Dowling adopted Maya as a baby and Linda did so a year ago. She described having to carry around documents when they travel to show that they both have legal custody of Maya, in case of an emergency.

"Civil unions and domestic partnerships allow for discrimination," Bonauto explained. "People in emergency rooms and other situations couples encounter when they say they are in civil unions ask 'what's that?'"

What Impact on Traditional Families?
One exchange exposed what pro-equality marriage supporters sees as an Achilles heel in the argument against same-sex marriages--their supposed impact on traditional families. No substantiated evidence is ever offered, they counter.

In this debate, the moderator asked Mutty about discrimination lawsuits he said have occurred in states where such marriages are legal. "I didn't bring my file with me today, but there are examples," he said.

As the debate concluded, Sharon observed that voters are split 50-50 and it isn't likely either campaign will change minds. Her comment prompted the only conciliatory gestures.

"We are going to the polls to let the people decide," Mutty remarked. "This is one area where our camps agree."

"No matter what the outcome, we'll live together in the Maine community and will be respectful of our differences," Bonauto said.

There are four more debates, which will be available online: Oct. 26, 7-7:30 p.m., on WCSH-TV Channel 6, Portland, and WLBZ-TV Channel 2, Bangor; Oct. 28, 5-6 p.m., WMTW-TV Channel 8, Portland; Oct. 29, 7-8 a.m., WGAN-AM radio, Portland, and Oct. 29, 5:30-6 p.m., WGME-TV Channel 13, Portland .

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].