A cartoon in the March 1 New Yorker shows a balding, middle-aged man and his wife gazing at the telly, as the man says: “Gays and lesbians getting married — haven’t they suffered enough?” The line is not only funny, but subversive. It hints at the feminist critique of marriage as an oppressive patriarchal institution — a view embraced by what used to be called gay liberation, whose attitudes and analyses a few of us unrepentant queers still share.
But for most same-sexers, gay liberation was long ago supplanted by assimilationist demands for full gay citizenship. AIDS, more than anything else, drove the issue of same-sex marriage to the top of the gay agenda — the pandemic starkly confronted us with partnership issues like health insurance, visitation rights when we’re ill, property inheritance and a host of other vital concerns. All of this preceded the desire to participate in the 1,049 federal rights of marriage (the General Accounting Office’s count) that benefit gender-discordant couples, but are denied to ours. (This is, of course, an incomplete and reductive summary of what has motivated the movement for marriage equality.)
Even though neither my partner of 15 years nor I felt the need to have the state sanctify our relationship, we’d have married had we been able to, as a measure of self-defense: Hervé was French, and after he was diagnosed with HIV, marriage would have been the only way around Bill Clinton’s sadistic executive order banning immigration of the HIV-positive. Because we couldn’t wed here in the States, Hervé died (suddenly) alone, in a Paris hospital, before I could get there to hold his hand.
Thirty-eight states have now outlawed gay marriage — enough states to ratify the gay-bashing Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which outlaws not just same-sex marriage but civil unions, by banning the “legal incidents” of wedlock to same-sex couples. But Dubya didn’t expect the Congress to pass the FMA when he endorsed it last week. Too many Republicans — from House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Defense of Marriage Act author Bob Barr to John McCain and New York Governor George Pataki — have already declared their opposition to the FMA for it to garner the two-thirds of Congress necessary to send the proposal to the states, as even Tom DeLay admits.
Bush’s FMA endorsement was just an artificial ploy, pure and simple, designed to surf on the substantial anti-gay backlash in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last summer to overturn laws prohibiting sex between consenting adults of the same gender — the so-called sodomy laws. A Gallup poll taken just after the court’s ruling showed that a comfortable 60 percent majority favoring making gay sex legal slalomed down to just 48 percent, while support for gay civil unions plummeted 10 points to only 40 percent. A dozen other polls confirmed the virulent backlash. Thus was born the Republicans’ decision to re-launch the anti-gay culture war as a means to win votes.
The White House maintains that Bush’s decision to endorse the FMA was taken only after San Francisco’s tsunami of gay marriages. That’s as big a fabrication as Bush’s claim he invaded Iraq over weapons of mass destruction. The Scripps Howard News Service has reported that Bush said, “I do,” and married the amendment last November 27, when he assured the FMA’s author, Colorado Representative Marilyn Musgrave, of his support for it and for “Marilyn’s language” in it banning civil unions while on a flight together aboard Air Force One (according to Musgrave’s chief of staff).
But the Bush-Rove decision to gay-bash to win votes was actually taken long before, as was signaled when Senate GOP leader Bill Frist said last July on Meet the Press that he’d “absolutely” support the amendment — a declaration which Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reported at the time was made with “no-fingerprints support from the White House.” Bush teased up to his FMA endorsement slowly, preceding it with his $1.5 billion State of the Union initiative to “support marriage.” Finally, when polls showed Bush being defeated by the Democratic nominee, the president trotted out his overt FMA support to staunch the bleeding and re-energize the conservative base appalled at a Bush-generated deficit in the trillions.
The certain Democratic nominee, John Kerry, has been all profile and no courage this year on the marriage issue. Yes, he was one of only 14 senators who voted against the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 — but then, he was contemplating a Senate re-election campaign against notoriously pro-gay GOP Governor Bill Weld. As a presidential candidate, Kerry has been trying assiduously to distance himself from that vote, which he fears the Bush campaign will hang around his neck like a bell around a leper’s.
As far back as 1986, Kerry told the Senate that trying to ban gay marriage was like the efforts to keep interracial marriage illegal. Today, Kerry opposes the Bush-endorsed FMA with mutterings about “states’ rights,” but proclaims his firm opposition to civil same-sex weddings every time the question comes up. Kerry is the Energizer Equivocator — he just keeps on switching, and switching, and switching . . .
Just two years ago, Senator Kerry joined his Democratic congressional colleagues from the Bay State in signing a letter to the state Legislature urging it to drop a proposed amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution banning same-sex nuptials. Then, last week, in his latest flip-flop, candidate Kerry endorsed the anti-gay-marriage, state constitutional amendment now pending before the Legislature. Even his hometown daily, the Boston Globe — which has endorsed him — editorially denounced Kerry’s support for the “odious” state amendment that would “single out one class of people for separate treatment” by defying the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision on gay marriage. “Equal, the SJC has ringingly declared, is equal,” thundered the Globe.
Bush’s support for the FMA validates the fear and hatred which says that lesbians and gays are less-than-human, second-class citizens who should be maintained in a state of civil quarantine. And that blessing of bigotry will lead to an inevitable upswing in violent physical attacks on and harassment of gays — just as the anti-homosexual rhetoric deployed in the debate over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But there is no moral difference between writing discrimination into the U.S. Constitution and writing it into the Massachusetts Constitution. Kerry’s position makes him as complicit as Bush in the coming surge of anti-gay violence.
The polls are not encouraging, for the anti-gay backlash continues. The Washington Post poll out February 25 showed support for the FMA up eight points in just a month, in the wake of the Massachusetts court decision and San Francisco’s weddings.
And a Pew poll two days later found that “Gay marriage is a more powerful social issue for voters than either abortion or gun control” and that two-thirds of the country opposes it. Bush’s appeals to raw prejudice may well work.