America - Andrew Stephen juggles a political hot potato

Now that one state has legalised gay civil unions, gay marriage has become a political hot potato. R

I sometimes feel a touch of indignation, I have to confess, when two gay women walk up the nave of my church hand in hand to take Communion. I can't help feeling that if holding hands in church is an ostentation in which heterosexual couples do not indulge, then it is all a bit too in-your-face for a gay couple to do so. But I also see that the women are making an important point. They are saying that they are every bit as full and active members of the church as anyone else, challenging reactionaries in the congregation to say otherwise. And along with five or six other openly gay couples, they receive a genuinely warm welcome from the church.

And this is turning out to be a momentous year for gays here. Across the border in Canada, gay couples like the two women (who were sporting Canadian flags the other day) can now get married. On 2 November, 56-year-old Gene Robinson was due to become the first openly gay and non-celibate clergyman to be ordained a bishop of the Anglican (ie, Episcopal) Church here. (The Archbishop of Canterbury, no matter how hard he tries to prevent a schism among Anglicans around the world, is powerless to intervene in the affairs of an autonomous branch and so cannot stop Robinson's ordination as Bishop of New Hampshire.) This summer, the Supreme Court struck down Texas's anti-sodomy law on the grounds that it invaded privacy; similar laws in 12 other states will have to be repealed because they, too, are deemed unconstitutional.

Now, gay activists are campaigning for the US to follow the examples of Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada, by making gay marriage legal. In Vermont, civil unions among gays are already legal, giving gay couples the same rights as married couples when it comes to taxation and inheritance laws and medical decisions; a ruling is awaited from New Hampshire's supreme court on whether similar measures can be enacted there.

All of which is rapidly making gay marriage a political hot potato. The Republicans plan to make it a major plank in the 2004 elections. Polls show that most voters oppose both gay marriages and legalised gay civil unions. And who, as Vermont's governor, signed that state's civil union into law three years ago? Howard Dean, the front runner among the Democrat candidates vying to take on Boy George next year. He would be highly vulnerable, Republican dirty-tricks strategists believe, on the gay issue.

Not only that, but of the four other serious possibles as Democrat candidate, three - John Kerry, Dick Gephardt and General Wesley Clark - have also indicated their support for legalised civil unions. In another close election, the gay issue - what American political insiders call an "opportunistic issue" - could just tip the balance.

Right-wing pressure groups have jumped speedily into the fray. "The institution of marriage is about to descend into a state of turmoil unlike any in human history," says Focus on Family. Concerned Women for America says gay marriage "is as wrong as giving a man a licence to marry his mother or daughter or sister". The Weekly Standard states, apparently in all seriousness: "Among the likeliest effects of gay marriage is to take us down a slippery slope to legalised polygamy and polyamory." The anti-gay groups point out that it was Bill Clinton who signed the "Defence of Marriage Act" in 1996.

Some Republicans say that gay marriage/civil union is potentially an even better vote-getting issue for them than abortion, which is still heavily opposed in the Bible Belt. Senator Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate (and a member of the party's mainstream) has already voiced vehement opposition even to civil unions for gays. A member of the House of Representatives has tabled an amendment to the constitution, no less, specifying that "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman".

One voice, though, has been distinctly reticent. Pressed on the proposed amendment to the constitution, Dubbya said: "I don't know if it's necessary yet. Let's let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent supreme court rulings. What I do support is the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman . . . we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that."

Dubbya's personal political strategists know where the danger lies: more than ever next year, they will need to present Boy George as the soft and cuddly, compassionate conservative. It may be too risky for him to be seen aggressively opposing the growing movement towards normality for gays. Perhaps he may even come to my church (a close relative has) and see for himself how lesbians can walk hand in hand - and how thunderbolts from Heaven do not strike the church or its congregation.