Reticence on the Right

After several months of worry in the gay and lesbian community that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lawrence decision striking down sodomy laws and the move toward same-sex marriage in Canada might be spawning a shift to the right in Americans’ attitudes, the good news may be that the backlash has blinked.

Several reputable public opinion polls done in the wake of the June sodomy decision found Americans less accepting of the idea of gay sex, of gay partnerships, and of gay marriage. The federal constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to the union of one man and one woman, introduced in the U.S. House early in the spring, suddenly had the support of Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and close to 100 co-sponsors in the House. Even those community advocates eager to build on our gains voiced caution and even warnings that things might get much tougher before they got better. Some among us wondered aloud whether our leadership might be trying to move too quickly.

Those concerns were tempered a good deal by the evident reluctance in the months since then on the part of President George W. Bush to take a clear stand in favor of the marriage amendment drive, even as he promised to do what was necessary to “protect the sanctity of marriage.” The qualms some conservatives voiced about mucking with the constitution or with the federal government upending the principle of states’ rights by dictating marriage policy properly determined by each state also provided comfort that a full-fledged backlash may not be in the offing.

But consistently throughout the past six months, observers have qualified whatever equanimity they expressed about our political prospects, particularly on the marriage front, with a straightforward caveat: All bets are off if Massachusetts goes for full marriage rights.

Now that Massachusetts has done exactly that, it’s not clear that any bets are off––in fact, the weight of the evidence to date points in the opposite direction.

On the federal amendment question, there has been no great stampede to join the fight on the part of politicians generally susceptible to pressure from anti-gay forces. Bush repeated his carefully nuanced hedge, still condemning same-sex marriage, but inching no closer to joining the constitutional fight. Some conservatives have repeated their quibbles with the amendment effort and added their concern that the proposed language would unduly threaten all public efforts in support of domestic partnership, a move they consider ex-cessively harsh. Yet the major action on the right wing side has not been to narrow or clarify the amendment’s wording, but rather to broaden its scope––an effort led by Chuck Colson, most famous for his role in the Nixon Watergate scandal, a dubious credential for a major role in changing the constitution if there ever were one.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has stated publicly that he would not move on an amendment unless and until the Defense of Marriage Act were undermined by the courts, a position which must nag at right wingers who could conclude, not unreasonably, that such action would be coming after the horse was already out the barn.

Even in Massachusetts, despite an immediate call by Republican Governor Mitt Romney to amend the state constitution, a Boston Globe poll of legislators, admittedly reflecting the views of only about half of all who will called upon to approve a constitutional referendum, suggests that the political stomach to monkey with such a fundamental document does not currently exist.

The lesson in all of this? It’s time to seize the moment. The community must go on the offensive in all venues possible––the legislature in Albany, the courts, the upcoming presidential election, and of course among our fellow citizens. We never got anything without asking in uncompromising terms. We have nothing to lose by bringing up the issue, consistently, forcefully, and repeatedly––and we have everything to gain.

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