The hand-lettered sign in Gunther Hanelt's jewelry shop window reads, "commitment rings." As Valentine's Day nears, his sales are up-"though I sell more in the summer," he says, when this town at the far end of Cape Cod fills with tourists, mostly homosexual.
Will that sign-and similar signs in other jewelry shops here in Provincetown-come down if same-sex marriage is declared legal?
"Hmmm. I hadn't thought about it," he says. "Would they be wedding rings then?" he asks two friends.
"I guess so," says one, laughing. "Bet you're glad you didn't buy the neon one."
"Oh, yes, those are expensive," says Mr. Hanelt, a German native who came to this homosexual enclave in 1972. "But why should I change the sign? Even if it is marriage, won't it still be a commitment?"
"Would you ever get married?" his other friend asks. Gunther frowns, running a hand through his thinning hair, and goes back to the display cases he's dusting.
His first friend, who wears a thin, tight leather jacket, grimaces. "What about divorce? If we have gay marriage, will we have gay divorces?"
And this starts an argument. "Gay marriage," says one of the men, is the wrong term to use because it implies a different kind of marital status. "We should say 'legal marriage for gay couples.'"
"That won't work," argues another, because "the lesbians won't like it. You'll have to say the whole thing: legal marriage for gay, lesbian, bi-, and transgendered people. I'm tired already."
"You know," the other says, "this is really their thing. We don't care a thing about it. It's the lesbians. They're so political."
The other disagrees. "I care about it. You should, too. And anyway, it's coming. Before you know it. It's something that's really important."
He's absolutely right. Same-sex marriage could be a reality by this summer. Vermont has pulled ahead of Hawaii and Alaska in the race to the altar; last month, the Vermont Supreme Court listened to arguments in Baker vs. Vermont, a case brought by two lesbian couples and a homosexual couple.
The court probably will rule in April-June at the latest-and observers such as the University of Vermont's Peter Teachout expect the vote to be 3-2 in favor of gay marriage.
"What's disappointing is that this is coming about through the courts, even though there were some victories at the polls last fall," says Matt Daniels of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which filed an amicus brief in the Vermont case.
In both Hawaii and Alaska, voters approved state defense of marriage amendments by margins of 2-to-1 on Nov. 4. Vermonters won't have the opportunity to vote on the same sort of amendment to their constitution until 2002, which means nearly four years of legally binding same-sex marriages before residents have a say in the matter.
And conservatives shouldn't pin their hopes on the federal Defense of Marriage (DOMA) law, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. DOMA is intended to prevent federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages, and to allow individual states to refuse to recognize homosexual marriages performed in other states. Homosexual activist groups are already claiming that the law is fatally flawed; they argue that it conflicts with the "Full Faith and Credit Clause" of the U.S. Constitution, which says that contracts and judicial proceedings validated by one state should be honored by other states.
Many legal scholars, however, believe the law is sound. "In the second sentence of the Full Faith and Credit Clause the Constitution reads: 'And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof,'" points out Amherst College's Hadley Arkes. If Congress can't act under this clause, he asks, who can?
A number of gay advocacy groups, including the Partners Task Force for Gay and Lesbian Couples and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, say the Supreme Court should take charge. They will challenge the constitutionality of DOMA as soon as the Baker decision comes down and, most likely, homosexuals begin to "marry."
"I think what this means is that Christians had better get ready," says Mr. Daniels. "This promises to be the Roe vs. Wade of the homosexual movement; if it happens, the floodgates will open and the landscape will change dramatically."
The Partners Task Force, a homosexual lobbying group based in Seattle, is quite clear about what those changes could entail.
"Couples married by a state government are automatically granted a broad range of rights at the federal level," the group argues in its "Quick Facts on Legal Marriage for Same Sex Couples" publication. Those federal and state rights include child custody, property rights, insurance breaks, joint adoption and foster care, sick leave, wrongful death benefits, Social Security survivor benefits, divorce protections, and automatic inheritance.
But ultimately, the debate is not about sick leave or even tolerance, one analyst says. Homosexual activists hope to use same-sex marriage to legitimize their movement and put the clout of the government behind their behavior.
"What first asks for tolerance soon begins to make demands for acceptance, and then seeks mandatory acceptance," warns Robert Knight of the Family Research Council. "If this happens in Vermont or Hawaii or elsewhere-and right now things look grim, especially in Vermont-then I think churches will come under a great deal of pressure to conform and accept homosexuality. I would expect churches' tax-exempt status to be threatened, and teaching the biblical view of homosexuality could be considered a hate crime."
That's not a far-fetched apocalyptic scenario; the National Education Association in 1997 changed the wording in its resolution on teaching about homosexuality from "tolerance" to "acceptance."
And writing in the magazine Out in 1994, activist Michelangelo Signorile said, "The most subversive action lesbians and gay men can undertake-and one that would perhaps benefit all of society-is to transform the notion of 'family' entirely." The fight for same-sex marriage is the way to "debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution that as it now stands keeps us down."
What might an America with legalized same-sex marriage look like? Provincetown provides some clues; as a long-time homosexual enclave, the town sees itself as a crusader in coercing tolerance. Not surprisingly, the public schools are the proving grounds.
"We are on a trailblazing path," says Susan Fleming, the superintendent of the Provincetown public school system. "The whole question is making gays and lesbians, whether through visuals or examples or acknowledging different family structures, visible."
In 1997, the school board voted to begin teaching preschoolers and all other students about homosexuality and alternative lifestyles. Now, representatives from Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFFLAG) speaks in all kindergarten classes.
And the district's "Provincetown Anti-Bias School and Community Project" calls for purging all "bias" from the curriculum.
"When we say anti-bias education," a Project statement reads, "we are talking about equipping students, parents, teachers and the community at large with the tools needed to combat racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, and homophobia and all forms of oppression, to find ways to build a society that includes all people on equal footing."
That's why poet John Milton, for example, won't be tolerated; one high school teacher, John Perry Ryan, declared an end to the curricular "dominance" of "white Europeans who are also very heterosexual, very Christian, very male."
The district gave teachers a handbook titled "Rethinking Our Classrooms," which says, "Teaching children to be critical of oppression is teaching true morality." The school board is also actively seeking homosexual employees.
Massachusetts itself is funding programs that promote homosexuality within the public schools; a Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth spent $1 million last year to fund school clubs (Gay/Straight Alliances) on 140 campuses throughout the state. Gov. William Weld also signed a Gay and Lesbian Student Rights law in 1992; that office also helps pay for an annual Gay and Straight Youth Pride Day celebration in Boston.
But some of Provincetown's other neighbors seem a little less enlightened. For some years now, there's been a feud between Provincetown residents and officials at the Cape Cod National Seashore in South Wellfleet. The homosexuals have been treating it as a nude beach; park rangers at the federally managed site ticket the ones they catch during infrequent "crackdowns." A Provincetown selectman who has been fined by park rangers three times now, David Atkinson, was elected on a nudity platform. (Three of the town's five selectmen are homosexual.)
The same-sex marriage controversy is really a tale of tactics; recently, it seems homosexual activists have given up on winning in the arena of public opinion. Last year, for example, groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Organization for Women had Valentine's Day demonstrations in support of gay marriage.
For its part, NOW offered a list of "Suggested Chants and Songs," including "We're here, we're queer, We're walking down the aisle;" a Barney-esque "I love her, she loves me, ho-mo-sex-u-al-i-ty, People think we're just friends, but we're really lesbians"; and of course, "What do we want? Marriage rights! When do we want them? Now!"
There's no repeat event scheduled for this year. Instead, homosexual activists are looking to the courts. "Most Americans oppose gay marriage," writes San Jose Mercury News columnist Joanne Jacobs. "They can tolerate gays having sex, but not gays having in-laws."
Still, she argues, "Sooner or later, Vermont or some other state will start issuing licenses to same-sex couples, no lightening bolts will strike the town clerk's office, and heterosexuals will begin wondering what all the fuss was about."
In other words, the homosexual lobby can worry about public opinion later. It's a smart strategy; changing public opinion will be easier when homosexual activists have a state supreme court ruling (and consequently the government) on their side.
That coffee klatch at Gunther Hanelt's jewelry store sees that the drive for same-sex marriage is "a fight for legitimacy."
A lesbian couple enters the store, holding hands. They spend some time looking at the rings and ask to see a set with matching baguette diamonds. Gunther unlocks the case and removes the tray. The women inspect the rings, then thank him and leave.
His friends pick up the thread of a previous conversation; last night, at the Holiday Inn's Whaler Lounge, two men won a karaoke contest by dressing as Saddam Hussein and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, and singing Jan and Dean's "Popsicle."
"I thought I was going to split," laughs one. The other agrees, "It was the berets."
Gunther hadn't gone to the party, and one of his friends chides him for it.
"You could have closed up and come on over," he says. "The street was dead last night."
"That's true," Gunther admits. "No one came in."
He leans forward to explain to a browsing customer. "I make most of my yearly earnings during the (tourist) season. So it's slow now; it will pick up in spring. And in the summer, look out! I'll do a big business then!"