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Gay marriage is ultimate wedge issue for father and son

Monday, April 5, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- When David Knight married his boyfriend of 10 years, his parents were not among the mothers and fathers proudly snapping photos and sipping champagne at San Francisco's City Hall.

His mother is long gone, dead of cancer when he was 17. And his father, well his father ...

These are precarious times for the gay son of state Sen. William J. "Pete" Knight, the arch-conservative architect of California's Defense of Marriage Act.

"He believes in something I don't," David Knight says, his voice tight with checked emotion as he talks about the patriarch he idolized in his youth. "I'm sorry about that and I feel sad that we can't discuss it ... I don't agree with him, but I think he's a good man."

Campaign issueWhether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry moved from a hypothetical question to a presidential campaign topic after Massachusetts' highest court and San Francisco's mayor forced the issue, prompting conservatives to call for rewriting the U.S. Constitution and dividing state legislatures across the land.

For the Knights, it's the ultimate wedge issue.

The elder Knight, a 75-year-old Republican being termed out of office this year, is California's most outspoken opponent of marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Since spearheading the 2000 ballot initiative that reinforced California's "one man, one woman" marriage laws, he has used the courts to keep state agencies from granting spousal rights to same-sex couples. His nonprofit group is at the center of the legal challenges to San Francisco's same-sex wedding spree.

The younger Knight , a 42-year-old custom furniture maker in Baltimore, flew to the city with his longtime partner and got married just two days before the California Supreme Court shut down the weddings. The court is considering whether city officials had the authority to contravene state law by sanctioning almost 4,000 gay and lesbian marriages.

Sen. Knight would not talk about his son, or his son's legally uncertain marriage to Joseph Lazzarro, an architectural designer. But during an interview with The Associated Press, he insisted his drive to keep gays from marrying doesn't make him anti-gay.

"We've had homosexuals since time immemorial," he said, "and nobody cared as long as they did their work and they didn't flaunt their sexuality and didn't try to push it on you and say, 'You have to accept me.' But now they are going to say they want to be classified as normal, and I can't accept the fact that two men, married, is normal."

The senator, who represents a heavily Republican Southern California district, took his 14-word California Defense of Marriage Act to voters after twice failing to get a similar bill through the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Years earlier, David Knight had told his father he was in a committed relationship with another man.

David Knight was the only one of the retired Air Force colonel's three sons to follow their father, a record-setting test pilot, into a career as a military pilot. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and flew jets in the first Persian Gulf War.

"My father was certainly proud of me. He spoke at my pilot training graduation," David Knight recalled.

After he came out, David said everything they shared was severed by their disagreement over what his father considers an unacceptable lifestyle.

"As far as the rejection, it's hurt every day since, and that's just a reality," David Knight said. "I don't think he's proud of me anymore, but I will say I could call my father at any time and he would not hang up on me."

The younger Knight doesn't think his father's crusade has anything to do with his own sexual orientation.

David Knight nevertheless felt compelled to lend his voice to the heated campaign over "the Knight initiative," as Proposition 22 became known. His opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times in 1999, "My Father is Wrong on Gays," characterized his estranged father's position as "a blind, uncaring, uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing."

David did not publicly counter his father's politics again until San Francisco's historic experiment.

With the senator calling the parade of unprecedented nuptials "a sideshow," his son found himself torn between familial loyalty and his responsibility as a gay man to make another statement.

"The worst image David could muster for himself was that he would be the poster child, and it has taken a long time for him to understand that you can do that without selling your guts," said Lazzaro, 39, the more naturally extroverted of the pair.

The son could not be talked out of going through with the marriage. The memory of his father reaching out to shake his hand at family events, while refusing to greet or even look at Lazzaro, still angered him.

"We're a classic conservative family -- keep it in the closet. If you don't talk about it, it's not a problem," he said. "I know I have my father's love and I honestly feel that, but I want his acknowledgment. I want him to recognize me and Joe."

As the gay offspring of a conservative politician, David Knight belongs to a small but visible group that also includes the lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney and the gay son of Christian activist Phyllis Schlafly.

Knight and his new husband have a reality check of sorts in Lazzaro's parents. Although it took time for them to accept them as a couple, his mother gave them matching rose boutonnieres to wear on their wedding day. Joseph Lazzaro later called his father, a retired auto worker, not knowing what to expect.

"He said, 'Congratulations, I'm very proud of you,"' Lazzaro recalled. "I told him about how it went with David's dad, and my dad said, 'I feel sorry for David's dad because he is just missing out on so much and there is going to be a hollow place in his life."'


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