It turned out to be a different kind of Valentine’s Day. On television, you could watch hundreds of gay couples lining up in the rain and waiting through the night to receive (largely symbolic) marriage licenses from the mayor of San Francisco. Back here in Washington, two friends of mine who have been together for about seven years also embarked on something new. Doug took his boyfriend, Chip, to the steps of the Supreme Court, got down on his knees, and proposed. It was after dusk, and a nervous cop shined his flashlight on them to make sure they weren’t doing anything improper. More symbolism: For decades, cops had shone lights on gay men in public places to see if they were having illicit sex. Now the light was on a gay couple for seeking the right to marry. The cop saw what was going on, turned off his flashlight, and moved on.
Something is happening in gay America. From an abstract argument pioneered by a few, the reality of marriage has now clearly been embraced by the vast majority. The silent types in gay culture are now in the vanguard—the ones whose relationships are conducted away from the streets and the parades and the bars, in suburbs or small towns or residential neighborhoods in big cities. Many have clearly decided that they do not need to wait any more for others to approve their relationships. They are already married in fact if not in law, in the eyes of their family and friends, and sometimes even in the eyes of their church. But they still lack the legal protections that make marriage a civil reality. Today, they no longer ask for these. They demand them.
This is the changed consciousness that every civil rights movement aims for. And, in that sense, we have already won. I’ve long believed that one thing holding gay America back from full equality is a residual lack of self-esteem and self-belief. That’s changing. Marriage—the very institution long used to stigmatize, marginalize, and disenfranchise gays—might now be opening to them. It already exists in Canada and is emerging in Hawaii and Alaska and Vermont and now Massachusetts. Every debate we have entrenches it further in the public mind—gay and straight alike. And, once you have internalized the notion that you really are as good as any heterosexual, it is hard to snuff out the empowerment that accompanies it. In this sense, San Francisco is merely a start, a gesture. When legal marriages emerge in Massachusetts in May, the gesture will become real.
And that, I think, will shift the whole dynamic of the debate. The question will no longer be whether we should agree to some new idea of marriage, but whether we intend to strip existing marriages of their legal protections; whether children of lawful parents will be made suddenly illegitimate; whether shared property must be unraveled; whether joint commitments can be legally undone by outsiders. Suddenly, it will be the religious right attacking marriage and the Catholic Church proposing divorce.
Some say gay marriage should not be imposed by the courts. But almost all civil rights breakthroughs in U.S. history have come through the courts. And Massachusetts is already contemplating legislative responses, including a state constitutional amendment. The voters will have their say. Others argue that marriage is a religious matter that gays shouldn’t touch. But civil marriage is not a religious matter; it’s a civil matter. When President Bush calls marriage a “sacred institution,” he is stepping beyond the bounds of his secular office. If civil marriage is “sacred,” why, after all, should atheists be allowed to marry?
For gay conservatives, and especially gay Republicans, this is a particularly fraught time. They are discovering that the fundamentalist core of the Republican Party is opposed not just to gay sex but also to gay love. Gays will be condemned for promiscuity, and they will be condemned for monogamy. The point is the condemnation. The president, for his part, wants to bar marriage and any civil protections to gay couples but without explicitly condemning them. He is two decades too late. Gay people are no longer so beaten down that they can be corralled to support their own disenfranchisement. Nor will gay conservatives sign on to a constitutional amendment that is the antithesis of traditional conservatism. The proposed amendment, drafted by some of the most radical “natural law” jurists in the country, would not simply rob states of any autonomy with regard to marriage rights, ending centuries of U.S. constitutional practice. It would forbid state judges from interpreting their own state constitutions and void any civil unions for gay couples that included the “legal incidents” of marriage. It would also be the first amendment designed specifically to target a minority and curtail their civil rights. Gay Republicans know this. They are terrified of what might happen and horrified by what their party has become. But they are ready to fight as well.
Can we avoid the war? I wish we could. Some kind of state-by-state solution is obviously the best recourse. But the religious right feels that allowing for marriage rights in even one state would represent the end of civilization. A federal civil-unions bill could undermine the calls for marriage rights—but, again, the religious right would not countenance it. Or there could be civil unions on the state level—but, if ratified, the amendment would gut them of any legal force as well. So the stakes mount. No one knows what lies ahead. We have never lived in a time of greater promise for gay Americans, nor a time of greater foreboding. After years on the margins, we are grappling toward a new dignity. But that dignity will be fiercely contested, debated, attacked.
In the face of this, perhaps the best psychological insulation is remembering what this is really about: cementing our loves and relationships regardless of what the world does or doesn’t do. We can propose on the steps of the Supreme Court or in the pouring rain outside San Francisco City Hall. We can marry in our hearts and in our homes before we marry under the law. We can love each other as human beings before we can love each other as equal citizens. And that they can never take away.
This article appeared in the March 1, 2004 issue of the magazine.