If public polling can be believed, over half of the American public now supports the concept of gay marriage, or "full marriage equality," as it is now more properly called. For the overwhelming majority of those who now support the idea, this position has come after personal introspection and a change in thinking. As President Obama put it, we've all had to "evolve" on the question of letting gay Americans get married, for the most part. While I tend to shy away from relating personal stories in the political columns that I write, I thought today would be a good day to do so, on this particular subject (I've already written this week on how I think America has truly reached the political tipping point on gay marriage, and to reiterate my predictions on how the Supreme Court will rule on the two cases it is now hearing). For me personally, my recent journey didn't involve a lot of change of heart over gay rights, but over political strategy. And I'd just like to start off by saying I was on the wrong side of the argument. I was wrong -- and not so very many years ago -- on the advisability of pushing hard for the right of gays to marry.
My conversion to the cause of supporting gay rights (in general) happened much earlier, I should mention. This doesn't excuse my previous stance on gay marriage -- in fact, it makes it somewhat worse. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start at the beginning, instead.
Growing up where and when I did, gays were something only dimly understood on the school playground. The epithet of choice (on our playground, at least) was "queer," and resulted in a game called "smear the queer" which consisted of one guy with a football running away from everyone else until tackled and pummeled to the ground and forced to give up the ball. The next person to get it would quickly run, and everyone would chase him next. That's about as far as the anti-gay feelings went in elementary school, and I doubt any of us could have adequately defined what "queer" actually meant, at that age. Later, this developed into a macho sort of attitude towards sexuality in general. Gays were, largely, invisible. This was definitely the Era of the Closet, at least as far as we could tell. The closest gays ever really intruded upon our consciousness was watching the antics of John Ritter on Three's Company, or possibly in admitting that Freddie Mercury was probably not all that interested in girls (seeing as how his band's name was "Queen," after all) -- but this didn't stop any of us from enjoying "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "We Will Rock You" in any way.
I hope I'm not painting all this in too good of a light. I grew up bigoted against gay people. I say it with no small embarrassment today, but I have to in all honesty admit: I started out as a bigot. So did most everyone around me, but that's not really any sort of excuse. As far as we could tell, as kids, this is what everyone believed and seemed both right and natural. But then, we didn't have any gay-bashing incidents or anyone making a big issue out of it, so it mostly remained unspoken. It was a fairly soft bigotry, but only because of the lack of immediate targets, I suppose. As I said, the Era of the Closet.
Then (like many) when in college, I actually met gay people. They were intelligent, interesting to be around, and I became great friends with some of them. Sure, they had a different orientation in matters sexual, but that didn't mean they were any different in any other way. In fact, they were some of the most interesting people I met (at a college chock-full of fascinating students, I might add), and I became quite close to many of them. I'd walk down the street with a lesbian friend, watch a gorgeous woman stroll by in the opposite direction, and both our heads would turn (after which, we'd look at each other and laugh).
Reaching this attitude, however, meant admitting that I had, up to that point, grown up bigoted. It meant confronting my bigotry in bizarre and unexpected ways -- those moments where you stop cold and ponder: "I know I think this, but I have no idea why I think this way -- maybe I'm wrong to think this...?" This was my real evolution on gay rights.
Right after I left college, I spent some time living in San Francisco, during the AIDS crisis. If I hadn't been convinced previously, this likely would have done it. Gay people were people, and that's really the only criterion anyone should use to weigh any attempt at discriminating against them. Ever. For any reason.
Back then, however, I don't think I ever heard anyone even argue that gay marriage should be a right recognized by all. At the time, I supposed, it was just too outlandish or far-fetched a concept to realistically conceive. But two things pushed the idea forward, at least in my political consciousness. The first was the number of gays dying from the AIDS epidemic, and the second was the Religious Right trying to paint all gays as "promiscuous." Gay men were dying, and their partners had no legal rights. No inheritance rights, and even more heart-wrenching, no hospital visitation rights. The movie Philadelphia truly exposed to America what people were going through, and it had a profound impact on the public's viewpoint, as did the AIDS quilt project. At the same time, the anti-gay forces were denouncing gay promiscuity (often over gay bathhouses), thus implying gays would be more accepted if they formed committed partnerships.
The politics shifted on gay rights, to pressing for civil unions. Some sort of legal standing for committed gay partnerships would allow for legal rights that married couples enjoyed. Gay marriage became a concept that was openly spoken of, but mostly in the way Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of "the promised land" -- something to be devoutly hoped for and something to work towards, but not something that you should expect to see any time soon.
The anti-gay-rights side then did a complete about-face, and started fighting any sort of legal recognition for committed gay couples, ignoring their previous complaints about promiscuity. Civil unions began to get some political traction. States started passing laws carving out a "separate but equal" type solution -- which was seen as an enormous step forward by most gay rights supporters.
The backlash from the Religious Right was fierce, and unrelenting. For approximately two decades, the anti-gay forces won at the ballot box in state after state, passing "heterosexual-only" definitions of marriage into the legal code. The federal "Defense Of Marriage Act" was passed and signed into law by a Democratic president. In fact, gay marriage became a winning cultural "wedge issue" for Republicans, and they exploited it for all it was worth.
In the 2004 election, eleven states had anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the ballot. While it is debatable how much actual effect this had on George W. Bush's re-election, it's easy to see that Republicans saw it as a winner and saw it as driving turnout (whether they were right or wrong about that). Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, began provocatively performing gay marriage ceremonies at City Hall.
This is all setting the stage for how I was wrong. In 2005, I had an extended email conversation with a gay minister who was arguing for pushing very hard for gay marriage as a basic civil right. I held the position that gay rights activists should be content with moving forward on civil unions, and that gay marriage would be nice... but wasn't realistically going to happen any time soon. Perhaps in a few decades, after America had gotten used to the idea. But not now -- now, it was killing Democrats' chances to get elected and change the direction of the country. I wasn't the only one making this argument back then -- there were many on the Left who were getting tired of having the gay marriage issue linked around their ankles like a ball and chain, dragging their electoral chances down. There were many voices saying: "Can't we just put this aside for a while?" But the number of people who took this position didn't make it the correct one.
In the short term, perhaps those of us saying "wait" were right -- perhaps more Democrats could have gotten elected sooner without the issue. But in the long term, both they and I were very wrong. And I have to admit -- that "long term" arrived one heck of a lot sooner than I ever would have expected. Nobody -- even those most optimistic about gay marriage -- could have predicted back in 2005 where we'd be in eight short years.
I cannot provide citations to the discussion I had back then, because this was just before I got into blogging. In fact, this exchange was one of the instrumental reasons I did decide to become a blogger -- the idea that discussions which I'd previously held over email or bulletin boards could be a lot more interesting in a lot bigger online realm. But, once again, the stance I took back then has now been proven wrong.
The argument I made at the time seemed valid, and seemed realistic and pragmatic in the world of politics. But while I argued for (in a word) "patience," the counter-argument which destroyed this stance was indeed more compelling: "It is never the 'right time' to stand up and demand your civil rights -- there is always a reason why we should just wait and sit content with whatever scraps we can get." Or, to put it another way: "Damn the politics, full steam ahead!"
Incrementalism is always hard to argue. That's one of the lessons both this particular issue and my years spent blogging on politics has taught me. There are times (and issues) where the only justifiable course of action is to stand up and say: "This is wrong, and we must change it." And also, "I don't care how this plays politically, it is still the right thing to do." Times where the possibility of victory or defeat doesn't even really enter into the political (or moral) calculus.
Gay marriage has become such an issue for me. I didn't start out holding this position. In fact, I started out as a bigoted little child. But even eight years ago, I was still wrong -- even while strongly supporting gay rights, in the abstract. Marriage is a fundamental human right, and it should be seen as an "unalienable" right -- meaning that no government should be able to take that right away. Gay people are people, just like you and me. They have (or should have) this same fundamental human right. I am married to a wonderful woman, which will change in no way whatsoever if lesbians and gays can also marry the person of their choice. That's how I feel now. But I would not be honest if I didn't admit I did have to evolve to get here. As President Obama said, the path of this evolution is there for all to walk. Those further along the path should not demonize those who haven't walked as far -- they should instead offer help towards navigating that path to those behind them. I hope my personal story will, in some small way, help to do so.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant