Gay-Rights Hearing Erupts

Benefits bill leads to bitter debate

By Chris Moeser, The Arizona Republic
February 4, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

The long-simmering debate over gay rights exploded in the state Legislature on Wednesday during a hearing on whether the state should continue to extend insurance benefits to same-sex couples.

The bitter exchange pitted Steve May, the only openly gay Republican elected to the Legislature, against Karen Johnson, a hard-line archconservative known for her battles against abortion and homosexuals.

At one point, May, R-east Phoenix, demanded to know why he should receive less protection under the law than Johnson, particularly when he has a single partner and Johnson has been married five times.

The rancor of the debate illustrates the deep cultural divide that exists even between those who come from the same party and religious backgrounds.

Johnson, R-Mesa, said homosexual lifestyles are "undermining the natural family" and threatening basic freedoms. Another supporter, Rep. Barbara Blewster, compared homosexuality to "bestiality, human sacrifice and cannibalism" in a letter to a constituent.

May called her a liar, but later apologized.

Johnson was the first to speak at a committee hearing on a bill that would prohibit the use of tax money to pay spousal benefits for unmarried couples and homosexuals.

But before long she launched into a diatribe against homosexuality itself.

"It's critical to our national health and survival to restore social virtue and purity to our state and nation," Johnson said. "Is living together without the benefit of marriage good? Is homosexuality good? If cohabitating and homosexual behavior is detrimental to the individual and to society, besides breaking the law, then society has the responsibility to resist it."

May had not planned to testify on the bill. But he erupted when Johnson was done speaking.

"I don't know if these lies are born of ignorance, or bigotry, or prejudice... I am offended. I am disgusted. It is a lie."

May later said Johnson was on a "medieval crusade" and was "spewing venom." He called her a tool of "radical-right, big-government theocrats."

After the hearing, the argument turned from personal attacks to religion.

Rep. Ken Cheuvront, D-central Phoenix, joined May in criticizing the bill. Cheuvront is also openly gay.

Cheuvront said it was ironic that the strongest supporters of the bill are Mormons, who were once persecuted for polygamy.

"It's unfortunate that the Mormons are trying to dictate their morals on Arizona," he said.

Johnson is Mormon, as are Reps. Dean Cooley, R-Mesa; Debra Brimhall, R- Snowflake; and Wayne Gardner, R-Mesa, who voted for the bill.

May, too, was reared Mormon.

After the hearing, May pointed out that Johnson has been married five times.

"My tax dollars are supporting her fifth relationship," he said. "She's been using my tax dollars to support five husbands. But she thinks it's wrong to spend tax money on my one partner."

He accused her of "carrying water" for Christian conservatives such as Gary Bauer and James Dobson in an attempt to stir up support for conservative groups.

"Today, their best fund-raising tool is railing against homosexuals. I resent being victimized for raising money for ... the Christian Coalition," May said.

Among other things, Johnson asserted that homosexuals suffer from a variety of illnesses, including AIDS, gonorrhea, anal carcinoma, and what she called "gay bowel disease."

She said that the life expectancy for a homosexual man with AIDS is 39, while homosexuals who haven't contracted AIDS can expect live to 42.

May disputed those assertions as lies.

Johnson added that it was wrong for taxpayers to pay additional health-care costs caused by a promiscuous or homosexual lifestyle.

"If the focus is kept on the medical consequences alone, moral judgments against such behavior are overwhelmingly supported by the best scientific data presently available," Johnson said.

"Such a judgment does not proceed from prejudice or homophobia. It is grounded in the concrete effects brought about by the kinds of sexual acts in which gay, lesbians, bisexuals and promiscuous heterosexuals often participate in."

When May responded, he attempted to explain his anger.

"Many members, I guess, expected me to stay in my office quietly and don't understand why I would come out publicly and oppose this ridiculous legislation. But when you attack my family, and you steal my freedom, I will not sit quietly in my office. This Legislature takes my gay tax dollars, and my gay tax dollars spend the same as your straight tax dollars. If you're not going to treat me fairly, don't take my money."

A supporter of the bill suggested it was May, not Johnson, who was lying.

"Homosexuals are known for telling lies and twisting the truth and attacking and calling names those who would stand up and not go along with their agenda," said Frank Meliti, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition of Arizona.

The proposal, HB 2524, would prohibit state government, including universities, from offering health benefits to the unmarried partners of employees. County and city governments could offer the benefits only after they were approved by the public at the ballot.

The bill would curb a growing trend of providing benefits to same-sex couples. Tucson provides benefits to same-sex partners, while Pima County covers both homosexual couples and unmarried heterosexual couples.

The House Government Reform Committee endorsed the bill Wednesday on a party- line 3-2 vote.

Increasingly around the country, companies are extending benefits to gay partners. One of out 10 organizations now offers domestic partner benefits, a trend that is expected to continue, according to a new Society for Human Resource Management mini-survey report.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott products of the Disney Corp. because the company provides benefits to gay couples.

May argued that Republicans should focus on other topics such as education and avoid the divisive issue of gay rights. Some of his colleagues agreed.

"My party continues to circle the wagons and fire at will," said Rep. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale. "It's counterproductive, and it's sad this took place today."

But others, like Blewster, R-Dewey, say fighting homosexuality should be a priority. In a letter to a constituent, Blewster argued that homosexuality "is a high sign of the downfall of the nation." She continued that there is "no joy in life without taking on the responsibility of a wife and children."

Blewster defended the letter Wednesday, saying that a moral climate needs to be re-established across the country.

"Morality is important no matter how much we want to think we are too sophisticated," she said.

Brimhall explained her vote by saying she loved all people. But she added, "I find homosexuality disgustingly disturbing. This calls God and his designs into question. I feel a strong sense of fear for anyone who questions God's designs."

May, a freshman lawmaker who served in the Army after graduating college, says government should butt out of personal lifestyle issues.

"They think I'm going to hell, and maybe that's the case," May said. "But why is my personal salvation the responsibility of the Arizona Legislature?"

Experts say the debate is emblematic of growing cultural tension in the United States that is dividing religious conservatives from a society that is becoming more diverse and less influenced by religious thought.

"It is an attempt to hold on to those values associated with rural America that came out of its Puritan past," said Bruce Merrill, an ASU pollster and professor of journalism.

"(Religious conservatives) feel like they're under attack. In a way they are: Society is changing. It's the underlying basis for the Lewinsky thing. They can't do anything else. To them, these are absolute values."

Merrill said religious conservatives will continue to raise issues such as gay rights as demographic and cultural changes weaken their political influence.

"It's a much more multivalued culture than the Puritan values that directed this country for 200 years," Merrill said.

"These people are desperately trying to hold on."