Monday, June 09, 2003

America Shrugs as Gays Marry in Massachusetts

By Steve Charing

As bad as the disgraceful abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has been for our country and humankind in general, it was a blessing in disguise for the lgbt community. Because on May 17, when gays and lesbians were legally entitled to marry in Massachusetts, the word of this historic breakthrough, while extremely significant to us, was overshadowed by other news. This prevented an immediate backlash from determined and bitter opponents.

Not only was “Prison-gate” (as I choose to dub it) a major distraction in the media, but the 50th anniversary of another civil rights victory—the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” status is unconstitutional in the U.S.—also made the headlines.

These events, in some strange way, formed a nexus in that they all involved either the abuse of human rights or advancing the equalization of civil rights. The rights of an individual swept away by maltreatment at the hands of American guards and other military personnel, or commemorating the de-segregation of public schools across the country, or elevating gays and lesbians from second-class status to equality (at least in Massachusetts) all intersected on May 17.

Many gay activists would have preferred that the onset of legal nuptials in the Bay State be story number one; that there be no clatter from other news to compete with what is arguably the most astounding development in the history of the gay civil rights movement, perhaps more so than the Stonewall uprising 35 years ago. That’s understandable.

May 17 can conceivably be our Independence Day. It could be marked by annual celebrations similar to those for Gay Pride, normally held in June to coincide with Stonewall. For on this day, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was indeed historic. In this world, in this 21st century only Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Canada allowed gay and lesbian couples to be legally married and conferred all the rights of married heterosexuals. On this day—a day filled with tears and joy from those who participated and the good folks who worked so hard to accomplish this unlikely feat—gays and lesbians can assume equal standing with their heterosexual counterparts.

So why is it a good thing that this landmark event be overshadowed by others? The answer is that the less hoopla attached to this occasion, the less likely the heterosexual population would be turned off. This dynamic is extremely vital in the quest for not only preserving same-sex marriage in Massachusetts but also to broaden this right and to allow recognition from other states.
The road to full equality is expected to be treacherous, with numerous potholes and landmines to navigate around.

President Bush steadfastly opposes same-sex marriage. “Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman,” Bush said. “If activist judges insist on re-defining marriage by court order, the only alternative will be the constitutional process. We must do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.” Consequently, the President has endorsed, and is encouraging, a federal constitutional amendment aimed at prohibiting gays and lesbians from ever marrying legally and thus, relegating the lgbt community to second-class status. If successful, such action would for the first time enshrine discrimination into the nation’s most hallowed document.

Moreover, the issue in Massachusetts is far from settled. In an effort to undo the court’s decision, the legislature, during an acrimonious session, passed a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It must successfully pass a similar amendment next year, and the people will vote by referendum in 2006. It is therefore possible that all these marriages have begun one minute after midnight on May 17 in Cambridge and continuing on throughout the state may be voided, and no further same-sex couples will be legally permitted to marry.

In addition, many other states are seeking similar measures to prevent same-sex marriages. Some in “battleground” states will be placing the issue right smack on the ballot in November—a cynical attempt by Republicans to force the question and bring out those pesky religious fundamentalists to the polls. Other states are scrambling to ensure that same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts would not be recognized in their own backyards.

Most polls taken since the now famous ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last summer and reaffirmed in February indicate that, when asked, approximately three out of five in the U.S. oppose same-sex marriage. That’s the result when people are confronted with the issue directly. However, I believe the data is skewed negatively in this particular matter.

With steadily rising gasoline prices, an incredibly horrific turn of events in Iraq, an economic recovery muted by declining consumer confidence, the loss of jobs, our prestige abroad all but eliminated, not to mention legitimate concerns for their own marriages and families, it is highly unlikely that same-sex marriage is a prominent issue around the dinner tables in heterosexual households.

When the news hit on May 17 that “gay marriages” were taking place, some of the potential incendiary rhetoric was muffled by the other weighty stories. At the various courthouses in Massachusetts that day, there were a few disorganized and ineffective demonstrations from the “God Hates Fags” crowd. Although TV stations were careful to include the voices of gay rights opponents as part of their coverage, these demonstrators too had to take a back seat to the other news of the day.

Having these marriages take place is crucial. It is somewhat more difficult politically and morally to remove rights once they are obtained. The country must see once and for all that the world will not come to an end now that lesbians and gay men are allowed to marry. As one happy member of a newly-married couple put it, “I can’t see how the world would shake if two middle-aged women opened up a checking account together.”

That is the message that must flow from this historic day. The nation’s problems will be there, same-sex marriages or not. The good things in life will be there, same-sex marriages or not. There are larger problems facing most Americans.

So when hundreds of ecstatic gay and lesbian couples received marriage certificates, America merely shrugged. And that’s the way it should be.