SAN FRANCISCO - Zeke Rubin-Moore is 3. He lives with a dog, four zebra finches and two fathers in a remodeled Italian grocery overlooking the Castro, this city's gay neighborhood. Lately, his adoptive parents keep talking hypothetically about marriage, a thing they never thought would matter. Now - suddenly, somehow - it does.
Jean McGuire is 83. She lives over the hill from little Zeke's house. Ten years ago, she lost her grown son to AIDS. Though the experience changed her mind on some gay rights, she can't condone homosexual marriage.
"I'm more tolerant now than I used to be, and I think they should have benefits and all that," she said recently, walking to morning Mass at St. Cecilia's Parish. "But marriage shouldn't apply to same-sex. It isn't marriage if you put it that way."
As those sentiments imply, a storm is gathering over the latest round of victories for gays who seek full acceptance and participation in society. First the Canadian government planned on joining the short list of nations with legalized gay marriage. Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that outlawed gay sex. Then Episcopalians elected an openly gay bishop in the face of calls for schism.
Now, as state courts take up legalization of same-sex civil marriage, opponents are reviving a proposed constitutional amendment to pre-empt that - and anything like that - from happening.
For many social conservatives, the coming battle is about halting a momentum that has been building for a generation.
Though the most recent polls have shown some slippage, tolerance for lesbians and gays in the United States has not only risen over the long term but accelerated in recent decades. Even support for same-sex marriage - falling since the Supreme Court ruling in June - is slightly higher now than in the mid-1990s.
"The short-term developments this summer are just a little squiggle in a much bigger picture," said William Rubenstein, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the faculty chairman of the Williams Project, a think tank on sexual orientation law.
"The larger sweep of events points to gradual increased acceptance of same-sex couples. The point at which same-sex marriage is recognized in all 50 states is down the line probably. I do imagine it will happen in my lifetime."
That cannot be allowed, said Glenn Stanton, a senior analyst at Focus on the Family, an evangelical ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"If we say the two forms [of marriage] are equal, we are really saying to children that they don't need both a mother and a father," he said.
Gary Bauer of the lobbying group American Values put it another way: "I think it's fair to say that if the other side wins the debate over the definition of marriage, traditionalists would have to pretty much admit that the culture war is over, and our side lost."
When the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas, the majority reasoned that gays deserved the same privacy and dignity in their homes as heterosexual couples and described same-sex relationships as a constitutionally protected "personal bond."
The next step, advocates on both sides say, is to test whether that equal protection extends to the bond of same-sex civil unions. A pending court challenge in Massachusetts, in fact, is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court as soon as it is handed down.
A Gallup Poll conducted after the Supreme Court ruling showed that approval of same-sex civil unions was down to 40 percent from 49 percent a month before. A Washington Post poll this month on the identical question showed still more slippage, to 37 percent support, amid widespread publicity over the ruling's implications. In a nationwide poll done by Gallup for CNN and USA Today, 50 percent of Americans favored amending the Constitution to restrict marriage to a woman and a man.
The Federal Marriage Amendment, which died with no action in the last congressional session, was reintroduced this summer with 75 House co-sponsors. Senate hearings are scheduled to begin next month.
In homes such as that of Stephen Moore and Scott Rubin, the debate has stirred old questions. Moore, 43, is a designer and real estate agent raised a Baptist in North Carolina. Rubin, 40, is a consultant and writer raised Jewish in suburban St. Louis. Together for eight years, registered as domestic partners, they adopted Zeke as an infant. At the time, they considered a commitment ceremony but decided it would cost "$35,000 for $5,000 worth of wedding china," Rubin joked.
Lately, however, it has come up again.
"I mean, there's nothing about the institution that I find attractive except what it could offer our son," Moore said on a recent morning, sitting at the coffee table in the family's home. "If it did happen for us, I'd be happy to call it something else. Civil union is fine."
"Really?" Rubin shot back. "Why ghettoize it? What if whites could get married, but blacks had to have 'civil unions'?"
Zeke toddled from Moore, whom he calls "Daddy" to Rubin, whom he calls "Papa." His yellow dog, Luke, snored next to a grand piano.
"I just don't think it's realistic to think I'll ever have that kind of universal acceptance as a gay person," Moore said, "so why ... "
"Oh, I'm not in agreement," Rubin replied.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.