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Update From the Prop 8 Trial: San Diego Mayor Describes Change of Heart

By L.K. Regan

The Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco federal court is in its second week, and the court has heard testimony from a wide range of witnesses about the history and impact of anti-gay discrimination. This week, the judge has heard from a particularly pointed witness: a politician who changed his mind on gay rights after discovering his own daughter was a lesbian. From the historical to the personal, it's been a heck of a trial so far.

It is key for the plaintiffs in the trial, who are bringing suit against California's 2008 gay marriage ban, to demonstrate that Prop 8 was motivated by bigotry and deeply held biases. This proves, they believe, its violation of the Constitution's equal protection provision. So, in the trial's first week, the court heard testimony telling the history of homophobia historically and socially.

Cambridge University psychology professor Michael Lamb dismantled the notion that children raised in gay households are any worse off than their straight-raised peers, showing the flaw with "defense of family" arguments against gay marriage. Harvard historian Nancy Cott pointed out that such arguments are nothing new in America's history of prejudice, and had in fact been used to defend prohibitions on interracial marriages and limits on women's rights within marriage. George Chauncey, a Yale historian, described our nation's long history of brewing fears of gay people that were used to defend discrimination against them in the workplace and socially. He described the language surrounding Prop 8 as recalling those themes. Psychologists described the pain of stigmatization for gays, and the plaintiffs in the case described their own sense of pain at language and advertisements describing them as a threat to children.

That's a damning line-up to be sure. But this week, another kind of witness testified, one who is neither historian nor psychologist nor even himself gay. But he is a politician and a father, and he has had a major political and personal reversal of opinion. San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders was a staunch anti-gay Republican for most of his career—until he found out that his own daughter, Lisa, was a lesbian (she was present in the courtroom for his testimony). Describing his views before this revelation, Sanders said on the stand, "I had been prejudiced. I was saying one group of people did not deserve the same respect, did not deserve the same symbolism of marriage, and I was saying their marriages were less important than those of heterosexuals." But in 2008 he very publicly stood with gays and lesbians in their fight against Prop 8. When the measure passed, his daughter lost the right to marry in California. Last month, Lisa wed her partner, Meghan, in a ceremony in Vermont. But, as Sanders said in emotional testimony, "My daughter deserves the same opportunity to have a wedding in front of family, friends and co-workers."

Sanders also described the political price of allying himself with the gay cause. He said that his re-election campaign was much tougher than it would have been otherwise, and that he lost the support of many in his party. In fact, he testified that he very nearly lost his party's endorsement. "The kickoff for the campaign, a lot of people weren't there," he said. Sanders was tackled by the defense under cross-examination, but he fought back against the defense's efforts to persuade him to agree that it is in the best interests of children to be raised by their biological parents. "I was a cop for 26 years, and I know there were a lot of children who did not benefit from and they were being raise by their biological parents."

Ultimately, Sanders told the court, the issue is very basic. "If government tolerates discrimination against anyone," he said, "it is very easy for citizens to do the same thing."