Kerry's Conundrum: Pro-Gay in Just about Every Other Way, Democratic Presidential Hopeful John Kerry Says He Just Won't Support Same-Sex Marriage

Article excerpt

In the conference room of John Kerry's modest presidential campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., sits a black-and-white photograph of Kerry and John Lennon taken at a political rally in the early 1970s. With his leather bomber jacket and thick crop of black hair, Kerry looks more like the antiwar activist he was than the U.S. senator from Massachusetts he would become.

Thirty years later, Kerry is far from a flower child. Dressed in an elegant suit and displaying a formal, almost aloof, bearing, he seems far removed from the days of free love and gay liberation. Kerry is a liberal on most issues--he opposes "don't ask, don't tell" and is a proponent of workplace protections for gay people--but his conservative appearance is right in line with his opposition to gay marriage. Even as his own state's highest court stands on the verge of legalizing it, Kerry repeatedly defends his stance in this exclusive interview with The Advocate.

At one point the senator, who is Roman Catholic, suggests his opposition is based, in part, on his conservative upbringing and religious beliefs. "That's how people view it," he says with little apparent enthusiasm, "with the religious component of it."

It is perhaps unusual that Kerry struggles to articulate a coherent position on the issue, given that his own marriage (his second, to Teresa Heinz, the glamorous heiress and progressive philanthropist) is the source of nearly constant media speculation. Writing in The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt even took Kerry to task for proposing that marriage is reserved for the "purpose of procreation" given that his own "appears unconnected to any such purpose." (In this interview, Kerry denies subscribing to the procreation argument.)

But Kerry is hardly alone in having a hard time getting a handle on what is perhaps the most incendiary political issue in America today. Some Canadian provinces have begun granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples; in Lawrence v. Texas the conservative U.S. Supreme Court all but opened the door to a legal challenge to bans on gay marriage; and conservatives are advocating amending the Constitution to even further strengthen existing prohibitions to equal marriage rights.

Immediately following his Advocate interview, Kerry was whisked across town to participate with other Democratic presidential aspirants in a forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. There, Sam Donaldson of ABC News grilled the candidates about same-sex marriage. Howard Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed the state's historic civil unions legislation, became so frustrated while defending his opposition to same-sex marriage that he simply changed the subject.

It's easy to see why the candidates are so eager talk about anything other than marriage. Despite a huge upswing in support for same-sex marriage, a majority of Americans continue to oppose legalizing it. These politicians are caught between a powerful constituency eager for full marriage rights and the center of the electorate, much of which continues to oppose it.

On nearly every other gay-and AIDS--related cause, Kerry has hardly been a reluctant convert. Since his election to the Senate in 1984, he has been an ardent gay rights supporter. One of the original cosponsors of legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, Kerry has achieved a nearly unblemished voting record on the issue. In 1996 he was the only senator up for reelection to vote against the antigay Defense of Marriage Act. Three years earlier he went before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify in favor of revoking the ban on gays and lesbians in the military.

As a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Kerry is perhaps the best-situated presidential candidate to take on "don't ask, don't tell." Having watched President Clinton's effort to lift the ban on openly gay service members go down in flames, he says he has developed a more incremental strategy to liberalize the policy by working in conjunction with the Pentagon and Congress. …