SAN FRANCISCO — Gay men and lesbians are a politically unpopular and relatively powerless force in the United States, even though the public tends to think otherwise, a political scientist testified Wednesday during a historic trial on the constitutionality of California's same-sex marriage ban.
Stanford University professor Gary M. Segura cited hate crime statistics, anti-gay remarks by elected officials, the relatively low number of gay office holders nationwide, and the success rate of ballot initiatives such as California's Proposition 8 to argue that gays do not possess a meaningful degree of political power.
"By any measure, gays and lesbians would have to be understood as a minority faction," Segura said. "People who accept the normativity of heterosexuality have held power essentially forever."
Lawyers for two same-sex couples suing to overturn Proposition 8 – California's gay marriage ban – called Segura to the witness stand to buttress their argument that gays are a disadvantaged group that deserves the same protections from discrimination afforded other vulnerable minorities under the U.S. Constitution.
Segura said Proposition 8 was part of a chain of ballot-box defeats for the gay rights movement dating back to the 1970s, including 33 of the 34 measures across the country dealing with marriage.
"There is no group in American society that has been targeted with ballot initiatives more than gays and lesbians," he said.
Attorney David Thompson, who is representing Proposition 8 sponsors, spent hours trying to poke holes in Segura's statements and show that gays enjoy substantial political support at the highest levels of government.
Thompson listed the progress of the gay rights movement in getting same-sex marriage legalized in a handful of states and its multiple legislative victories in California, including the recent selection of John Perez, a gay man, as speaker of the California Assembly.
"Your conclusion is that gays and lesbians lack sufficient political power even though the speaker is openly gay?" Thompson asked.
Segura replied that Perez's ascension to the speakership was based on factors other than his sexual orientation.
Thompson also played a recording of President Barack Obama telling a national gay rights group in October, "I'm here with ya" in fighting "for progress in our capital and across America.
"Does President Obama count as an ally to the gay and lesbian community?" Thompson asked.
Segura responded: "I think President Obama is perhaps the best illustration of an ally who cannot be counted upon, an ally whose rhetoric far exceeds his actions."
Other evidence presented by the plaintiffs Wednesday provided new details confirming reports from the 2008 campaign that Catholic and Mormon church leaders were heavily involved in promoting Proposition 8, directing money, volunteers and advisers to the effort.
Over objections from lawyers for the measure's sponsors, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker allowed several internal campaign documents to be introduced so Segura could evaluate them. Lawyer Andy Pugno argued that church members' identities and discussions about the campaign should be considered protected religious speech and not subject to public scrutiny.
The documents included minutes from a meeting of Mormon Church public affairs representatives stating that the church planned "not to take the lead on this proposition" but nonetheless would identify leaders in each of the faith's 1,182 California congregations to assume volunteer roles in the campaign.
"This campaign is entirely under (Mormon) priesthood direction in concert with leaders of many other faiths and community groups," read an e-mail from Mark Jansson, the church's representative to the executive committee that oversaw the Yes on 8 campaign.
Theodore Boutrous Jr., a lawyer for the couples, told Walker the documents were significant because the Mormon and Catholic churches tried to downplay their roles in the campaign. Segura testified that having two powerful religious groups form an alliance against gay rights was a big asset for gay marriage opponents and "unprecedented, in my experience."
Also Wednesday, a gay Colorado man testified that the "reversal therapy" he underwent as a teenager to change his sexual orientation drove him to the brink of suicide.
Ryan Kendall, 26, of Denver was called to the witness stand to demonstrate that a person's sexual orientation cannot usually be changed. Kendall said his parents learned he was gay by reading his journal when he was 13. The therapy he tried at their insistence did nothing to turn him into a heterosexual.
"I was just as gay as when I started," he said.
During his 18 months in the program, hearing from his therapist and his parents that gays were bad people sank him into despair.
Attorney James Campbell cross-examined Kendall gently, asking if he ever believed the therapy could help, since he had been forced to go by his parents.
"Your only goal for conversion therapy was to survive the experience, is that true?" Campbell asked.
"Very true," Kendall answered.