“Change is a fact of God,” says a character in a Grace Paley short story, “from which no one is immune.” Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Texas law against sodomy last June, the changes have come so fast that everyone — right and left, gay and straight — seems slightly disoriented. The struggle for gay equality reached the tipping point when San Francisco began issuing same-sex marriage licenses on the orders of its newly elected mayor, Gavin Newsom, a dapper, straight, married Catholic whose canny political maneuver let him surpass English soccer star David Beckham as the world’s top-ranking metrosexual.
Always seeking an electoral edge — or is that wedge? — the right had leapt on the issue of gay marriage last year, proposing a constitutional amendment banning it. At the time, Bush told Diane Sawyer he would support such an amendment “if necessary.” The necessity here was always, of course, political — if the election was close, Bush would fling down the gay card. In fact, I expected him to do precisely that shortly after the Democratic convention in that Sodom known as Boston. But San Francisco’s photogenically joyous weddings meant he couldn’t set his own timetable. Facing angry pressure from his right-wing Christian base, which he’d been placating with empty biblical code words for most of his term, Bush last week endorsed the amendment. But not happily. Even as his mouth pronounced heterosexual marriage the linchpin of civilization, his body seemed to be slinking out of the room.
For a second, I almost felt bad for him. By all accounts, Bush is not personally homophobic — he’s even appointed gay aides to the White House staff — and for the first two years of his term he didn’t make hay by attacking homosexuality. Yes, the president made reassuring noises to the right that he opposed what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia termed the “homosexual agenda” (as if Tony Kushner and Andrew Sullivan were plotting to get into his robes). And yes, Bush praised Rick Santorum for being “inclusive” right after the pious senator classily compared homosexuality to “man on dog” action. Yet, by and large, the president treated gay issues in the same ’50s fashion as he handled race and women’s rights. He tried not to notice these things and hoped “they” would just stay quiet.
But after San Francisco, Bush was forced to twist himself into an ideological pretzel. He had to signal the Christian right that he condemns homosexuality, at the same time reassuring swing voters that he’s actually tolerant, all while hiding the fact that he doesn’t give a damn about the issue — warrior CEOs have bigger fish to fry. Bush’s bad faith is a useful reminder that we should judge politicians by their public actions, not their private feelings. In backing the amendment and violating his professed principles — “So at last it is official,” wrote The Economist, “George Bush is in favour of unequal rights, big-government intrusiveness and federal power” — he again revealed that he will do whatever it takes to win the election, even if he’s ashamed of, or opposed to, what that might be.
Of course, it’s tempting to think that anti-gay sentiment is the exclusive province of dim evangelicals, Republican strategists and red-state yahoos. But many of L.A.’s supposedly enlightened souls shouldn’t flaunt their own tolerance quite so smugly. If the president exploits anti-gay feeling for votes, liberal Hollywood constantly does the same for dollars — and not just Mel Gibson with his swishy Herod. Every other word was “faggot” in Bad Boys II — whose producer Jerry Bruckheimer somehow thinks himself a progressive — while Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s stillborn Starsky & Hutch serves up faux-subversive laughs about homosexuals and gay panic. I can hardly wait for their film about Siegfried & Roy.
You can understand why many smart liberals — from gay Congressman Barney Frank to Talkingpointsmemo.com’s Josh Marshall — wish the same-sex marriage battle would simply disappear as fast as the next Rob Schneider picture. Just when the Democrats were finally smacking Bush like a piñata, all those shots of kissing men sucked up media attention and put John Kerry on the spot: Mirroring Bush’s own flip-flop, this Massachusetts senator was suddenly a weaseling champion of states’ rights. Although Democrats ought to support gay marriage, the party’s big names don’t dare take such a position openly, because they see it not as a question of principle — which it is — but as a political bear trap: They can either support gay marriage, a sure-fire electoral loser, or disavow it, thereby disappointing progressive voters (although Kerry’s vote against the Defense of Marriage Act should help him). In any case, the nominee will be pummeled for supporting civil unions, which Karl Rove’s henchmen will portray as the slippery slope to gay couples being showered with Arborio rice on the steps of the National Cathedral to the strains of “YMCA.”
Although gay rights may prove a usefully divisive issue for Republicans in 2004 — who knows if America’s still that crazy? — Bush and his party are on the wrong side, morally and historically. When last year’s groundbreaking decisions came down in Texas and Massachusetts, I could only bow my head in respect for the courts and, more important, for the men and women who filed these suits. Challenging an anti-sodomy law in Texas? That’s brave. After all, these weren’t just cases about gay rights but American ones. These bold souls were fighting for our constitutional liberties — and all of them are all of ours — in an era when the right is hell-bent on limiting them. It speaks volumes about today’s conservatives, especially the religious branch, that their proposed amendment would be the first ever to explicitly diminish the constitutional rights of any group of individuals. Which is to say, it is un-American.
It’s also a lost cause. Aside from naked politics, what’s fueling the right’s fevered attack on same-sex marriage is its frustrated realization that wide-open gay life is here to stay and, over the next generation or so, will inevitably claim its full legal rights. In the 35 years since Stonewall, gay Americans have already made amazing strides; national attitudes toward homosexuality have changed more profoundly than Western attitudes had in the previous thousand years. Back in 1991, 71 percent of people said gay sex was always wrong; 11 years later, that number had dropped to 53 percent, with a full third of Americans saying it wasn’t wrong at all. And though two-thirds of Americans still oppose gay marriage, 49 percent support civil unions. Such a view is being ratified in the workplace, where nine of the 10 largest Fortune 500 companies — including Wal-Mart, hardly the guiding star of the liberal elite — have adopted anti-discrimination rules about gay employees.
As more and more gays and lesbians come out, more and more heterosexuals realize they know someone who is gay or lesbian. When The New York Times asked if she and Dubya have gay friends, Laura Bush unhesitatingly replied, “Sure, of course. Everyone does.” And even if they don’t know them personally, straight Americans have grown used to sympathetic gay characters appearing on sitcoms (Will & Grace), Rosie and Ellen hosting talk shows, Isaac Mizrahi selling clothes at Target, and the Fab 5 “manscaping” sad sacks with nose hair on Queer Eye, a program that offers the most innocuous possible version of gayness — it makes straight men better able to please their girlfriends. Such programs are not aimed at the coastal elite. Cheerfully putting their queer shoulders to the wheel, their stars present a soothing, neutered version of an enduring subculture that mainstream society has been raised to find frightening or immoral.
In such a cultural moment, it is perhaps fitting that the beautifully giddy display of social rebellion being performed by thousands of gay and lesbian couples should be the profoundly conservative act of getting married. Such domesticity helps explain why so many gays who fight for the right to same-sex marriage don’t like the idea of it any more than Justice Scalia, albeit for opposite reasons. They fear it may cheat gay life of its splendor — the gender twisting, nonconformity, unabashed hedonism, aesthetic idealism and rebel audacity refined through centuries of being outsiders.
“The privilege of being gay,” John Waters recently told Fresh Air, “was that you didn’t have to get married or have kids. Now Provincetown will be the new Niagara Falls, and gays have more babies than Catholics.”
And the right finds this too radical?