Prop 8 Trial Provides History Lessons on Marriage, Gay Stereotypes

By Lisa Leff
|  Wednesday, Jan 13, 2010  |  Updated 6:42 AM PDT
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Prop 8 Trial Provides History Lessons on Marriage, Gay Stereotypes

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DES MOINES, IA - APRIL 27: Jodie Vandermark-Martinez places a ring on the finger of her partner Jessica during a wedding ceremony on the steps of the Polk County Administration Building April 27, 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa. Today was the first day gay couples were allowed to marry in Iowa following an April 3, 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court which declared a legislative ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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A Yale professor testifying in a case challenging California's same-sex marriage ban said Tuesday that the 2008 campaign to pass Proposition 8 played on stereotypes historically used to portray "homosexuals as perverts who pray on young children, out to entice straight people into sick behavior."

George Chauncey, a historian who specializes in the subject of 20th century gay life, was the second expert witness to appear for two couples unable to marry because of the state's voter-approved gay marriage ban. Their lawsuit has led to the first federal trial to decide the constitutionality of laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman -- a case most experts think will eventually land before the Supreme Court.

After viewing several television commercials produced by Proposition 8's sponsors, Chauncey said images and language suggesting the ballot initiative was needed to "protect children" were reminiscent of earlier efforts to "demonize" gays, ranging from police raids on gay bars during the 1950s to campaigns to rid public schools of gay teachers in the 1970s.

"You have a pretty strong echo of this idea that simple exposure to gay people and their relationships is somehow going to lead a whole generation of young kids to become gay," Chauncey said. "The underlying message here is something about the undesirability of homosexuals, that we don't want our children to become this way."

Chauncey's views were introduced to help persuade Chief U.S. Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who is hearing the case without a jury, that the California measure unlawfully discriminates against gays because it was based on an underlying hatred or moral disapproval and serves no legitimate public aim. 

Court concluded with a lawyer for Proposition 8's backers beginning to cross-examine Chauncey, who is scheduled to resume his testimony on Wednesday.  

Earlier Tuesday, another history professor, Nancy Cott of Harvard University, presented a centuries-old history lesson on government regulation of marriage, even touching on President Bill Clinton's indiscretions to argue that the institution has evolved dramatically over time.  

In her second day of testimony, Cott disputed a statement by a defense lawyer that states have a compelling interest to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples for the sake of procreation.

Cott said marriage also serves an economic purpose -- one that was especially pronounced when it was assumed that men and women performed different jobs in their partnership.


 

But as traditional gender roles and the purposes of marriage have changed, the reasons to bar same-sex couples from marrying have gone away, she said.

"It does seem to me that the direction of change leads consistently toward the appropriateness of allowing same-sex couples to marry," she said.

Under cross-examination by a lawyer for the sponsors of California's Proposition 8, Cott conceded she couldn't predict the consequences for society of same-sex marriage.

Defense attorney David Thompson spent more than two hours reading excerpts from Cott's writings and testimony in state-level gay rights cases to portray her as an advocate who was selectively reading the historical record to support her personal views.

"In your opinion, morality has been uncoupled from marriage, correct?" Thompson asked.

Cott said she had written something to that effect in the context of adultery and premarital sex no longer being considered crimes. Thompson asked if she considered the public's willingness to excuse Clinton's infidelity while in office to be evidence of a "seismic shift" in sexual mores.

"Yes," Cott said. "The majority of the public overlooked his infidelities because, I argued, the social meaning of marriage had moved toward the idea that spouses themselves are best equipped to decide what is acceptable behavior within marriage, not something the state would judge."

The expert testimony marked a change in tone from the trial's first day, when the plaintiffs -- Kristin Perry, 45, and her partner, Sandra Stier, 47, of Berkeley, and a gay couple from Burbank, Paul Katami, 37, and Jeffrey Zarrillo -- gave intimate accounts of how being unable to wed affected their lives.

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