Some Thoughts -- Both Personal and Otherwise -- About Same-Sex Marriage

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

"Did I say hooray?" Professor Dorf's post analyzing New York's Marriage Equality Act was appropriately celebratory. With the initial surprise now giving way to deep satisfaction, attention has turned to what it all really means, who deserves credit for this historic turn of events, and what can be learned for other major political battles.

One bittersweet aspect of the new world in New York involves thinking about all of the people who did not live to enjoy the spoils of victory. Thousands of people died before their time, never imagining that marriage would have been an option for them during the course of a full lifetime. (One such couple was Gabriel Casuso, who died in 1988, and Kevin Buchanan, who died in 1991. It is a joy to imagine how those two men, who would now be in their mid-50's, would have celebrated the right to have their relationship recognized by the state as a marriage.) As The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pointed out, however, the AIDS crisis was a central part of the process that made the recognition of same-sex marriages possible.

Bruni's persuasive argument is that standing up for civil rights required being willing to out oneself. Before AIDS, even in the post-Stonewall era of gay activism, it was still too tempting to stay either in the closet or, at least, to decide not to make waves. When it became a matter of life and death, however, the calculus changed. It was necessary to stand up and make noise, simply so that fewer people would die. The sad irony, therefore, is that the deaths of so many men -- men who would have loved to have their love recognized by the state -- was a key component of making the new reality possible. A counterfactual history in which they all lived quite possibly would not have seen the civil rights gains of the past few decades.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the winning glow is the stories of how straight people made peace with the notion of gay marriage, and with the entire notion of homosexuality. In Maureen Dowd's most recent op-ed, she related the following story from Governor Cuomo: “A father, maybe 60 years old, came up to me and said, ‘You know, I have a gay son, and I never really accepted him and I shouldn’t have needed you to tell me that it was O.K. to accept my own boy. But I did.’ ”

A key result of this political process, therefore, was the large numbers of people who discovered that they knew someone who is gay. (For what it is worth, however, not everyone was so reluctant to accept reality. In my family, the response to Kevin's announcement that he was gay was, "Well, obviously. And ... ?") This made the gay rights struggle more like the struggle for women's rights ("Think of how this will affect your wives, daughters, and nieces"), where "othering" does not work as it does for racial and other differences in a segregated society.

Finally, in the rush to spread around the credit for this civil rights breakthrough, it is worth remembering just how important it is to have a crazed, unreasoning opponent. As the humorist and lesbian activist Kate Clinton pointed out several years ago, the person most responsible for making gay marriage a reality is arguably Pat Robertson, the televangelist. In their never-ending search for wedge issues, Robertson and his kind grabbed onto gay marriage as a threat to all that is good and decent.

As Clinton noted, plenty of gays, and progressives more generally, were initially ambivalent about the idea of fighting for marital rights for gays. Nearly everyone I knew thought (circa 2000) that gay marriage would never happen, and that it probably did not matter much, because marriage is hardly a perfect institution. It was only when the wingnuts really started to push the issue that we even started to think about the practical aspects of being married (the property and inheritance issues, the hospital visitation rights, and so on), much less the dignitary rights that still attach to the much-maligned idea of marriage. In a weird sense, we needed to be told that this was worth a fight.

The tide of history is clear. Even Obama's "evolution" will be complete sometime soon. There will be more fits and starts, but there is no going back. We should thank the heroes, appreciate the useful flaws of our foes, and take a moment to remember those who are not here to enjoy the victory.