Politics in the Time of Gay Marriage
An interview with former Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap
On Feb 20, 2004, Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap became a local legend of sorts, kind of like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett rolled into one. She was the public official who was acting, in some people's minds, like an outlaw, going against conventional attitudes in an effort to—here's where it gets tricky— uphold the law. On that day, Dunlap issued marriage licenses, 64 in all, to gay and lesbian couples, because, she said, there was no law forbidding her from doing so. The move added fuel to an election year firestorm that was brewing in Washington, D.C., and three days later, President George W. Bush announced: "A county in New Mexico has also issued marriage licenses to applicants of the same gender. And unless action is taken, we can expect more arbitrary court decisions, more litigation, more defiance of the law by local officials, all of which adds to uncertainty."
However, Dunlap, a Republican, said she was following the law, not defying it. But that didn't stop a state District Court judge from issuing a restraining order against her and Attorney General Patricia Madrid denouncing her actions and calling the licenses invalid.
Dunlap stuck to her guns, though, and to this day argues she had a constitutional obligation to uphold the law and that's all she did. Thus far, nobody has proven her wrong in court, nor did the state Legislature pass a Defense of Marriage Act in the most recent session, and nor has Bush said much about gay marriage now that the election is over. Meanwhile, Dunlap finished out her term on Jan. 1, 2005, and after 17 years of living in Rio Rancho, moved to Ohio, where the Alibi caught up with her by phone last week.
When all the controversy was swirling around you last year, how did you see the issue playing out in the public and in the media?
In the media I could see that of course everyone was jumping right on it because it was a big story. People were trying to get the facts correct and I could see they were losing sight of the concept of the law. It turned into such hoopla that people were losing their perspective. I think that people still grasped, you know, the whole concept to some degree, but I think we lost some understanding of what my position is regarding the law.
The Legislature never did pass the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Everyone forgot about it. OK, so as far as I'm concerned those marriage licenses are still valid, and why anyone wouldn't think they are, I think that it's just some people living in la-la land. I think they just don't understand reality.
What was your reading of the law?
My reading was that marriage is between two consenting adults—it doesn't matter whether they're male and male and female and female. That has nothing to do with it. It's two consenting adults, so what I did was correct, and I think more of the rest of the country understands that. You know, there is no DOMA law here.
If DOMA passed in New Mexico, do you think the licenses would be invalidated?
The only way to invalidate them—it says clearly in the law—is through court proceedings. It's like divorce. I don't know how it would work if the Legislature changed the law. They probably would just tell everybody that it was the law now. But that doesn't mean in retrospect. That doesn't mean the ones that had already been done could go back and (be undone). They're valid. You know, I've heard about the Social Security, they're not getting benefits and this and that—just stupid little tricks that politicians play on people, you know, retaliatory-type things that have happened.
How were you treated after the news broke? You're on TV, your name's in the newspaper, your picture's everywhere—how did that make you feel?
I didn't have a problem with the public at all. I'm around a lot of open-minded people and I'm just around the general public most of the time. I didn't hang out with politicians. I really didn't have much to do with them—this huge group of corrupted politicians. I had no problem with the public, really. There were some that were a little bit fanatical about the thing—they didn't understand gay people at all.
Give me an example.
Well, I had this call, and this lady just went on and on. I can't remember the exact words, but ... these people are not human ... what you've done is a terrible sin—you know, on and on—someone wrapped around the idea that homosexuals are non-human, they look odd, they aren't right, don't deserve to be on the planet, that type of thing. There are other ways of thinking other than this religious dogma, you know.
Did you experience a lot of public outcry that represented that opinion?
No. That's what I said—most of the public wasn't like that. I had more good positive feedback for what I did. I had priests, preachers, ministers, people calling me that said keep going, keep going, we're standing behind you.
But did they really stand behind you?
They did. They wrote letters and did what they could, but when you have such a political upheaval going on there, you know, it's almost like a gang mentality in New Mexico. And all these politicians are in the loop, and they've been in the loop for a long time. It makes the common person or the regular guy ineffective, impotent to this type of thing.
The public's voice is muted by this huge political monster—the Republicans and the Democrats. They just get squashed so much that they become impotent. In New Mexico the general public is terribly oppressed. They have no control, you know, and that's a very humiliating thing. And this has happened before in history, but it's pretty bad there.
Did you ever feel that the local news coverage was sensationalized or manipulated in any way to fuel the controversy or sway public opinion?
Yeah, a little. There wasn't a whole lot of that, though. I didn't feel like it was sensationalized. I think the reporters tried to do the best they could. You have 10 minutes to get this job done, you know what I mean? They didn't have time to flesh it out. I had studied this issue. I gave a lot of consideration to what people thought, coming to this decision, doing the research. I'm well-read, I read everything I can.
Researching the law?
Yeah, the law, and I've read all the philosophy behind the Constitution. You know, it's like what Carl Bernstein said last night for this thing with Deep Throat. They wanted to make sure they were right. That was the biggest fear. And that's what my biggest fear was. In my position as an elected official, I have to be right. So, there was sensationalism, there always is. Or somebody doesn't get it right or they misinterpret what you say, you're over their head or under their heels, or whatever it is. I think (some reports) played it down to where it wasn't important. I think (others) made people feel like perhaps this was illegal.
Did being a Republican put you in an awkward position? The gay community seems to be more comfortable with the Democratic Party.
I don't know why. They put you in these two categories and they don't think you're a human being anymore. Either you're a Democrat or Republican, either liberal or conservative. Well that's not the way it is—there are many other shades in between. And the new generation just isn't like that.
Would you follow someone like Hitler? Would you be so intolerant and inflexible that you're just going to say, ’OK I'm a Republican so this is what I have to do, this is step one, step two.' Would you say, ’I am a Republican because you gotta be one or the other?'
People in my party disagreed with me. Yes, vehemently. And I could care less, because I heard 'em scream on the phone before. And I thought, ’they're just closed-minded people. I don't care. I don't care what they think.' I've got to care about the public. That's who I serve. I've got to care about doing the right thing for the public. I'm taking it back to what it's all supposed to be about—the law. But they're in there for the power trip. They're in there to jerk people around to get their way. I mean, it's just like state Sen. Steve Komadina. I mean, this guy gets up and starts talking about, you know, homosexuality is an act, which is just terribly unethical and ignorant for his position as a physician. Other people don't stand up to say anything, you know, like reputable physicians—they just want to stay out of the politics because the politics just profanes everything. It just profanes science. You've got religion that's oppressing people—the dogma—and then you got the politics that are oppressing them.
Did you anticipate the kind of firestorm that erupted when you decided to issue those marriage licenses?
Well, I don't think anybody could have. But the way I see it is, let it come. I've never been one to back down on anything. No, I didn't expect that there would be so many bigots, honestly. I didn't. I didn't expect in this day and age that we were going backwards instead of forward. But when I'm up for a fight, I'm up for a fight. I've done things, not quite to where they were publicized like this, but I've done this kind of thing all my life. It's nothing new to me.
Are you going to move back to New Mexico and run for office anytime?
I don't know. I'm at least going to stay here for awhile. Make sure things are OK. My son is ill and he's going to the Cleveland clinic. During all this my son was diagnosed with some type of brain disorder. He has seizures. But, these are personal things.
You know, I've thought about it, but the whirlwind with politics now, it's just so bad. I was in this swirling pit of corrupted people, and when I first went into office I told everybody, I said ’look, first of all I don't want a PR guy, second of all, I want you to understand I'm an elected official, and this is what I do.' I had read (the law regarding my job requirements) so I told the County Commission what their position was. I had to explain all this to them, and then tell them this is where you stand, this is where I stand, this is how it works.
Are you saying the Sandoval County Commission is corrupt?
Oh, they're corrupt to the bone! That administration is so corrupt it is unbelievable. Remember when they said I destroyed all those computers? Those were outright lies; they were proven to be wrong. I had this happening constantly. I had it happening since the first day I was in office. I didn't like the degrading stuff that happened, though, because my daughter was at one of those meetings where they were just trying to humiliate me, degrade me. ... It's a swirling quagmire of corruption, and that was what I dealt with, all along.
But you stood up for what you believed in.
Exactly. And then I stood up to them and said, ’Hey I didn't come here to please you, but we've got society to worry about, and you're just a small entity in this big world.'