They recently celebrated their 20-year anniversary and a few weeks ago moved from their home in south Scottsdale to a Biltmore-area high rise. On weekends, they enjoy family dinners. They are politically connected, well-to-do and well-educated.
They also happen to be gay.
Bill Lewis and his partner are not unique. And like many other East Valley gay and lesbian couples, they are pleased — though far from satisfied — with the recent string of gay rights victories.
“Heterosexual couples married for three weeks have more rights than we have after 20 years,” said Lewis, co-founder of the Arizona Human Rights Fund.
“All we’re looking for are equal rights. Nothing more. There’s nothing special about being able to be treated like everyone else.”
Canada’s pending legalization of gay marriages, the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of anti-sodomy laws and Gov. Janet Napolitano’s executive order barring state job discrimination based on sexual orientation have created unprecedented momentum for gay-rights organizations.
They intend to seize it, moving next to legalize gay marriage, end across-the-board employment discrimination and allow same-sex, two-parent adoptions.
Along the way, East Valley gays hope to educate people and explode some myths. “The work now becomes getting people to understand that our relationships aren’t that different,” said Scott Harnisch, who teaches music at a Chandler elementary school. Harnisch and his partner have been together for three years. Both were involved with women in their early years — Harnisch was engaged three times and his partner was in a 20-year marriage that produced two children.
Now, his partner’s children welcome Harnisch as part of their family. Parents, teachers and administrators also are supportive, though gay rights will never be discussed in his music room.
“Do I think it’s appropriate to discuss with my kids? No,” he said. “I’ve never gone into my school and jumped up and down and said I’m gay.”
While there may be widespread acceptance of gays, even in the conservative East Valley, there may be far less of gay rights. Those in the gay community know it is likely to be a long struggle, and comparisons to the civil rights movement are inevitable.
East Valley legislators have opposed efforts in past years to ban gender job discrimination, create a statewide domestic partner registry and give gay partners the right to visit each other in hospitals and share custody of their children.
“I view it as a slippery slope,” said former Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe. The Supreme Court ruling striking down anti-sodomy laws, she said, opens the door for other groups to demand equal rights.
“The super majority of Americans do not want to see gay and lesbian marriages. They want to see marriage as one man and one woman,” she said. “They don’t want polygamists. They don’t want men marrying their cousins or their sisters. All of this leaves that door open.”
Knaperek said a state constitutional amendment is needed to clarify the law. Arizona is among more than 30 states that have defense of marriage acts, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and gives Arizona the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from another state. President Clinton signed a similar federal law in 1996.
Though national politicians appear loath to take up the topic for fear of losing votes, Knaperek said East Valley conservatives support a U.S. constitutional amendment banning gay marriages and could launch an effort to amend Arizona’s constitution as well.
“I believe it’s going to have to be clarified,” she said. “We are a moral society. We should have some sense of moral compass.”
On matters of morality, however, many East Valley clergy have spoken, signing a declaration affirming gay rights and denouncing discrimination against them.
“We celebrate the end of the debate,” the No Longer Silent Phoenix declaration begins. “The verdict is in. Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice and not a sin.”
Religious references are often used to denounce homosexuality, but some local church leaders said it is a clear and deliberate manipulation of the Bible.
“The main theme of the Bible is God’s love for all people,” said the Rev. John Cunningham of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Parish in Gilbert.
“People will try to wrap their argument in religious mandates, because it will give strength to it,” he said. “Those of us who have studied Scripture, we’re on to that game.”
Cunningham and other pastors said that as long as couples are law-abiding citizens, they should be welcome to express their commitment and fidelity to one another, and have that relationship sanctioned by law.
For couples all over the East Valley, it’s about more than marriage. In many instances, there are children involved.
In Chandler, a college administrator and her nurse partner are raising a 3-year-old boy. The nurse was artificially inseminated, and Arizona does not allow two-parent adoption, so the administrator has no legal rights to the child.
“When you have children, it changes your perspective. He is first and foremost,” said the woman, who is afraid her family could be targeted if she was identified.
The women believe marriage and two-parent adoption would not only bestow rights upon their family but give them and their son a level of societal acceptance. Already, the boy is beginning to understand that families come in all shapes and sizes.
“He will tell you that . . . in a family, everyone loves one another,” she said. “He knows that he’s cared for, he’s surrounded by people who love him and support him.”
Gay rights activists are noting every step, small and large, toward equality. Wal-Mart last week announced that it will include gays and lesbians in its anti-discrimination policy. The Tucson City Council adopted a domestic partner registry, a largely symbolic gesture that gives gay couples the right to be recognized for purposes of hospital visitation and city services.
“We’re going to continue to fight for equal rights until we get them,” said Kathie Gummere, an attorney and public affairs director for the Arizona Human Rights Fund.
“The momentum is really building now. State after state. City after city ... They can’t stop it. No matter how much they try.”