Jerry Sanders: A glimpse of the gay marriage tipping point?

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders may have provided some of the most important testimony in Perry v.  Schwarzenegger – but not because he spoke to the suit’s legal issues.  Instead, Sanders embodies something more significant: The crest of public opinion that is rising to support marriage for same-sex couples.

In January, Sanders took the stand to confess his own anti-gay beliefs, to recount his change of heart, and to say why it is important for government to disown prejudice of all kinds.  He was a unique Perry witness for two reasons: First, he had the courage to admit his own prejudice.  Second, although he now supports gay marriage, Sanders represents a demographic that is not particularly likely to do so.

But while Sanders’ story was unique at trial, it is not unique in American society.  If we believe public opinion polls showing that gay marriage is moving toward moderate acceptance, then his story of conversion can be told by millions of Americans.  As such, it is emblematic of a great social change and deserving of special attention.

SEEING PREJUDICE

Sanders’ testimony was unique first because, in a parade of nearly 20 Perry witnesses, he was the only one to confess an anti-gay prejudice.  This is somewhat surprising considering the plaintiffs spent nearly two weeks claiming that widespread discrimination entitles gays and lesbians to special legal protections.  Their expert witnesses did describe how gay people had once been outlawed from working with children, banned from holding government jobs, and censored from television scripts.  Today, gay soldiers still risk losing their commissions when their sexual orientation is made public, and witness Ryan Kendall told us how he and other gay children are sent to conversion therapy, intended to convert gay people into heterosexuals.  Yet despite voluminous testimony about the prevalence of anti-gay prejudice, Sanders was the only witness to admit having furthered it himself.  Thus, his testimony took on a surprising significance: To have concluded without it might have been akin to have closed a criminal trial without giving the jury a chance to inspect the murder weapon.  And indeed, Sanders might have surprised the gallery with what he said about anti-gay prejudice: He said his had been unconscious.

For years, Sanders had considered himself sympathetic to gay rights.  As a police officer and mayor, he had investigated hate crimes and run high school diversity workshops.  He chaired the National Conference for Christians and Jews, a group devoted to fighting bigotry and racism.  However, it was only a meeting with gay friends and neighbors that showed Sanders what he described as his own hypocrisy regarding the issue of gay marriage.

Sanders laid the groundwork for this meeting in 2005, when he won the San Diego mayoral race on a platform that favored civil unions.  Two years later, he was caught in the headlights of the gay marriage issue when the San Diego City Council directed their city attorney to file a legal brief in support of same-sex marriage.  Sanders had to decide whether he would veto the resolution.  He initially decided he would and, as a courtesy, called gay organizers and friends to inform them of his decision.

“What I expected was that they’d say civil unions are fine,” Sanders said about the meeting.  But instead, his friends and neighbors were outraged.  One of Sanders’ neighbors reminded him that they often exchanged pleasantries when she walked by with her partner and children.  Didn’t he realize they were a family just like his?  Another friend simply declared that she loved her children as much as Sanders loved his and that her children deserved to have married parents, just as Sanders’ children had.  “I was absolutely shocked at the depth of the hurt, the depth of the feeling,” Sanders said.  “I realized how close I had come to really closing the door on things that were unbelievably important to them as a group of people.”

That night was a turning point for Sanders.  In reflection, he was unnerved to conclude that his choice to exclude same-sex couples from marriage could only be explained by an unconscious prejudice.  “It didn’t mean I hated gay people – didn’t mean I didn’t think the community was equal in every way,” Sanders said.   “It simply meant that I hadn’t understood the issue clearly enough.”

At a press conference the next day, Sanders cried as he announced that, despite his campaign pledge, he now favored marriage for same-sex couples.   He said vetoing the City Council’s resolution would be inconsistent with values he had pursued for 30 years and that, instead, he had decided “to do what I think is right and to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice.”

CLOSE TO HOME

Sanders told the court in January that his press conference wasn’t emotional only because he had nearly forsaken his neighbors and fellow community leaders: He was also devastated to discover he had nearly forsaken his own daughter, Lisa, who is gay.

On the stand, Sanders recounted how Lisa had told him during her sophomore year of college that she was a lesbian and in a lesbian relationship.  Sanders said his reaction was one of “overwhelming love” and that he had been proud of Lisa for approaching him.  “I realized how difficult it was to tell your parents that you were a lesbian,” Sanders reflected.  Lisa subsequently supported Sanders’ choice to endorse civil unions instead of marriage for gay couples: Considering her father’s conservative base, she believed this was politically palatable and that he should not jeopardize his re-election.

But at the press conference, Sanders cleared his throat and cried hardest when he declared that close family members and friends, including Lisa and members of his personal staff, were gay.  Later, he said he cried because he realized that he had come “very close to showing the prejudice that I obviously had.”  “In the end, I couldn’t look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships … were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife,” Sanders concluded.

SANDERS AS EVERYMAN

Sanders’ story is instructive because, while his account is particularly dramatic, his change of heart is not unique.  Instead, he and millions of others may represent the fulcrum of public opinion on which gay marriage is turning.  For example, just two months ago, a CNN poll became the first to report that a narrow American majority now supports same-sex marriage.  In contrast, only about 25 percent of those polled in 1996 believed that gay and lesbian couples should have the right to marry.  Similarly, polls show that more than half of all Californians now support the rights of same-sex couples to marry, while slightly less than half did so when they approved Proposition 8 in 2008.  Given this shift in public sentiment, it is not an exaggeration to think that Sanders might personify the crest of a sea-change: He did what people all over this country have been doing – change his position to support marriage for same-sex couples.

If Sanders does personify the crest of an American social change, he does so also because of who he is.  The second way in which Sanders was a unique Perry witness is that, of all witnesses, he represented a demographic that is perhaps most reflective of the United States as a whole.  Of nearly 20 people called to the stand, Sanders was the only one who is neither gay nor an academic expert.  Instead, Sanders is a Republican.  A former police officer.  A broad-shouldered man who is married to a woman and who heads a family with two, grown children.  And perhaps with the exception of his previous divorce, his family life epitomizes what the Perry defendants say they are trying to protect.  Of all trial witnesses, then, Sanders may uniquely represent the kind of person who gay rights advocates must reach and convert if they are to change the culture — and not just the law — of the United States.

GOVERNMENT’S ROLE

Interestingly, Sanders himself made a compelling case for why United States courts should help this process along.  On the stand, he described his 26 years as a San Diego police officer and said this work had exposed him to severe anti-gay beatings, slurs, and robberies.  Indeed, as recently as 2006, a gay San Diego man was killed because of his sexual orientation.  Over time, Sanders concluded that a long line of city leadership was partly to blame for these crimes.  “If government tolerates discrimination against anyone for any reason, it becomes an excuse for the public to do exactly the same thing,” Sanders said, mentioning city leaders who had disparaged and denied basic rights to the gay and lesbian community.   This is why Sanders ultimately supported the City Council resolution in favor of California’s In re Marriage cases.  “It’s in the interests of government” to eliminate this kind of crime he said at his press conference, and when it comes to gay people, “I want their relationships protected under the law.”

Later, Sanders’ stand became national news.  Video of his press conference went viral, and he received letters and emails from all over the world.  As Sanders put it, these notes not only comment upon the choice he made — and that others are now making.  They also seem to be forever reminding this burly, former police officer “that I cry in public.”

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