Now That One State Has Legalised Gay Civil Unions, Gay Marriage Has Become a Political Hot Potato. Republicans Think They Could Make It an Even Bigger Issue Than Abortion

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I sometimes feel a touch of indignation, I have to confess, when two gay women walk up the nave of my church hand in hand to take Communion. I can't help feeling that if holding hands in church is an ostentation in which heterosexual couples do not indulge, then it is all a bit too in-your-face for a gay couple to do so. But I also see that the women are making an important point. They are saying that they are every bit as full and active members of the church as anyone else, challenging reactionaries in the congregation to say otherwise. And along with five or six other openly gay couples, they receive a genuinely warm welcome from the church.

And this is turning out to be a momentous year for gays here. Across the border in Canada, gay couples like the two women (who were sporting Canadian flags the other day) can now get married. On 2 November, 56-year-old Gene Robinson was due to become the first openly gay and non-celibate clergyman to be ordained a bishop of the Anglican (ie, Episcopal) Church here. (The Archbishop of Canterbury, no matter how hard he tries to prevent a schism among Anglicans around the world, is powerless to intervene in the affairs of an autonomous branch and so cannot stop Robinson's ordination as Bishop of New Hampshire.) This summer, the Supreme Court struck down Texas's anti-sodomy law on the grounds that it invaded privacy; similar laws in 12 other states will have to be repealed because they, too, are deemed unconstitutional.

Now, gay activists are campaigning for the US to follow the examples of Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada, by making gay marriage legal. In Vermont, civil unions among gays are already legal, giving gay couples the same rights as married couples when it comes to taxation and inheritance laws and medical decisions; a ruling is awaited from New Hampshire's supreme court on whether similar measures can be enacted there.

All of which is rapidly making gay marriage a political hot potato. The Republicans plan to make it a major plank in the 2004 elections. Polls show that most voters oppose both gay marriages and legalised gay civil unions. And who, as Vermont's governor, signed that state's civil union into law three years ago? Howard Dean, the front runner among the Democrat candidates vying to take on Boy George next year. He would be highly vulnerable, Republican dirty-tricks strategists believe, on the gay issue. …