Taking theMarriage Plunge

Several weeks back, as I prepared to head to Newark for a press conference at which Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund was announcing its plan for a lawsuit seeking marriage rights in New Jersey, a friend asked if I would raise a thorny question about divided community opinion on the marriage issue in front of the mainstream media.

I replied that the question had not occurred to me, but that now that I had been asked, my answer was no, I would not.

My response was not based in any sense that I have an obligation as a member of the gay press to avoid airing dirty community laundry in front of the wider public. In fact, for me, nothing could be further from the truth. As a gay journalist, my job is to raise legitimate questions within and about our community. Hopefully, at least some of those inquiries will find resonance with reporters at larger media outlets.

Instead, I did not raise any questions with Lambda about divided opinion about marriage rights because I think our community is past that issue.

Several years ago, at the invitation of Marriage Equality, a group pushing for same-sex marriage rights in New York State, I moderated a panel of four community and political leaders who debated the marriage question. I heard all of the arguments about how marriage was a privileging institution within our culture and how the push to expand that privilege to include monogamous gay and lesbian couples takes steam out of any effort to more fundamentally examine the way in which such privilege stands in the way of universal access to social benefits such as health care. The debate is interesting up to a point, but only in an academic, theoretical sort of way. At the time, it seemed to me that the practical issue facing us was that there was a significant legal institution that systematically barred gay men and lesbians. The political goal seemed clear––we should fight to break down those bars.

That was several years ago––well before September 11, 2001.

Since last September, I’ve attended numerous events––memorial services, press conferences, and public hearings among them––at which gay men and lesbians who lost partners in that tragedy have spoken in aching detail about the indignities, the financial crises, the legal hurdles they have faced, all because they lacked a marriage license at a moment of nearly unbearable grief.

Hearing those stories––and seeing the pain written on the faces of those telling them––made marriage for me more than simply a lofty ideal or a nice choice to have on the menu. It made it a critical ingredient in our citizenship, one without which we could never hope to claim a full place within our society. Those stories made me impatient both with our own dithering about this issue and with political leaders who profess to be our friends but say they are unwilling to support us on this vital civil right.

Marriage must take its place along with sexual freedom, protection from violence, and assurances of nondiscrimination in health care, housing, and employment as a non-negotiable part of our political agenda.

And politicians who seek our support must do the work to “get there” on this issue.

New York, particularly the Democratic Party here, is full of leaders who proudly proclaim that they stand with us, but are unwilling to take the marriage plunge. Their denunciation of opponents who are not as far along on gay rights (usually Republicans) rings hollow and invites cynicism when the intellectual inconsistency of their own position is considered.

The simple fact is that none of the state’s leading Democrats––Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton or gubernatorial hopefuls Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo––can offer any explanation other than political calculation to explain their failure to support marriage.

But the example of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s run for the governorship in Massachusetts offers another perspective on the political equation at play. In June, during Boston’s gay pride parade, Reich came out for gay marriage. According to his campaign, the announcement was a one-day story in Massachusetts and Reich remains neck and neck for the Democratic nomination there.

If it’s good enough for Massachusetts, it damned well ought to be good enough for New York.

McCall and Cuomo are scrambling to find issues on which to distinguish themselves from popular incumbent George Pataki. The Republican governor failed us on his promise to deliver a nondiscrimination law this year. His Democratic opponent has the opportunity to make history by changing the dialogue on gay rights in New York in a fundamental way.