Gay marriages open gate to social stability
USA Today, Aug. 13, 2003
by Samuel G. Freedman

Seven summers ago, my wife and I took our children to the first wedding of their young lives. In a sun-dappled courtyard, before witnesses ranging from swaddled infants to a 93-year-old, my literary agent exchanged rings and vows with his gay lover, an author. Then I drank so much champagne my wife had to drive us home.

On that June afternoon in 1996, the ritual carried no legal weight, no assurance of inheritance or even spousal health coverage. Still, I ha wanted my children to attend the ceremony, because it offered a vision of the tolerant future I hoped would be theirs.

Now, as the nation stands at the threshold of openly, seriously deciding whether to legalize gay marriage, that future is at hand.

The debate promises to be intense, protracted and ugly. At its end, the social stability of the country would be well-served by permitting gays and lesbians to join in formal domestic partnerships. Gay marriage, endorsed by the state, rewards a strain of social conservatism that benefits families, schools, workplaces and congregations.

A decade ago, we bungled a comparable opportunity. When the issue of gays in the military arose, the Clinton administration framed the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." That supposed compromise in fact served to reinforce the closeting of homosexuals in the military. We should have built a monument to the gays and lesbians who had given their lives in the armed forces; we should have honored them for making the ultimate sacrifice of any citizen.

Similarly, if gays and lesbians want to make the public commitment to lifelong union, then that decision deserves the support of the law. As imperfectly as we practice it, marriage nonetheless connotes responsibilities and obligations beyond those of the unattached individual or of the couple, whether gay or straight, who simply live together.

Centuries, literally millennia, of opposition to homosexuality have done nothing to extinguish it, because, whether as a matter of biology or psychology, it is plainly part of the human equation. What the slanders and excommunications and hate crimes have accomplished is to drive homosexuality underground, or into some vague limbo in which daily life is a stilted exercise in don't ask, don't tell.

Nearing 50, I am old enough to have seen the tormenting of "homos" in high school and the self-torture of gay teachers never free to acknowledge their sexuality. I remember the silence that descended over a group of my college friends one evening in the mid-1970s, when one mentioned he had a gay brother in San Francisco. In our respectful muteness, we reacted as if that brother had terminal cancer. Even when gays achieved cool in the '80s, they were exoticized, by others and by themselves.

The AIDS epidemic took hold and spread in America largely because gay male culture found its expression in the anonymous sex and multiple partners of the bathhouse scene. As if to compensate for straight society's refusal to allow them the prosaic forms of domesticity, many gay men disparaged monogamy itself as a boring heterosexual chore.

It took some of the heroes of the AIDS crisis, such as author-activist Larry Kramer, to articulate a gay identity built around more than promiscuity. And it should come as no surprise that one of the most persuasive advocates for gay marriage is columnist Andrew Sullivan, a resolute Tory on most political issues. A common thread of conservatism joins those positions.

But in the broader public debate now burgeoning, the conservative stance shapes up to be a definition of marriage that precludes homosexuals. Even after the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation protecting gays and lesbians in many states and cities, even after the extension of pension and health benefits by numerous public and private employers to homosexual couples, even after the emergence of gay TV stars and shows, the prospect of marriage stirs some ancient
fears and hatreds.

Like the Brown vs. Board of Education decision nearly a half-century ago, the Supreme Court's recent ruling establishing a right to privacy for homosexuals has simultaneously pointed the way to equality and excited feverish opposition to it. History tells us the years ahead will be bitter and difficult, but history also tells us progress will occur.

Along with demagogues and bigots and opportunists, millions of men and women of principle and piety deplore the movement toward same sex marriage. They must realize that their own moral opposition to it can coexist with federal or state statutes permitting it. The Catholic Church deems divorce a sin even as civil law allows it. Orthodox and Conservative Jewish rabbis will not perform interfaith wedding ceremonies even as half of American Jews marry gentiles.

Practicing a religion means joining a voluntary association and choosing to abide by its doctrines. Observers of America as far back as de Toqueville have ascribed a good deal of our vigorous public life to the freedom of church and state from one another. Let it be so on the matter of gay marriage.

Personally, I can't help remembering that my agent and his partner had their commitment ceremony on the back steps of a church, an image of almost-ness. Seven years and two months later, they remain together, a middle-aged married couple in the eyes of their friends and colleagues, but still not their country.

Back to top


Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Politics Articles