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Maybe you're not willing to blame John Kerry's statistically narrow defeat on the 11 state initiatives banning same-sex marriage. Go ahead, wrangle the numbers until you reach a rosier conclusion. Then ask yourself this: If you voted for Kerry, or at least against George Bush, wouldn't you have perhaps preferred that the gay marriage question come up some other time, any other time?
To a point, I can sympathize. In 2000, I certainly thought Ralph Nader should have picked some other time. His run seemed to me quixotic and immoral, as did the votes of almost all his supporters. The whole enterprise was self-indulgent and doomed, and the Naderites should just have come off it. They didn't, and it changed the immediate fate of the free world.
You could say the very same about gay people's desire to marry.
Except that we're not talking about a protest vote for a minor candidate. We're talking about full citizenship for one of this nation's most denigrated minorities. We're talking about the hope and security of thousands upon thousands of gay people and their families. It may be that Democrats can't win if they support my rights in any form, even that of civil unions. It may be that they'll have to throw me overboard. Trust me, I know I'm a liability, and that realization hurts me in a way I didn't think a purely political problem could.
If I could help the cause by bargaining my way toward the center, maybe I would. Please, burn my rights and not Falluja. Keep abortion legal and I'll just let the inheritance thing go. But the conservatives who put those amendments on the ballot aren't interested in that kind of deal. They can pass anti-gay legislation almost anywhere, anytime, as they build their new consensus. They've now passed laws in some places that say my two-year-old son isn't my son. In such a climate, marriage may seem an unreasonable desire, yet it is a basic expression of my identity. Practical or not, my longing for marriage is inseparable from who I am.
Perhaps worse for the Democrats is that this issue is equally inseparable from their, dare I say it, moral values. Let's be honest about what this party is. Unlike the current Republican administration, most Democrats believe that when freedom goes on the march, it's not just to bomb some strategic location halfway around the world. However afraid they may be of the consequences, the Democratic leadership must know deep down that the Constitution provides for everyone's freedom to marry, in several different clauses, from the separation of church and state to the guarantee of individual privacy. They must know gay people deserve equal treatment under the law. They must know separate but equal is a lie, despite their dashing for the quick fix of a civil-unions platform.
Kerry struggled all the way home to make the electorate believe him about Iraq, about health care, about middle-class taxes. Let me suggest that, at least on the issue of same-sex marriage, he struggled because he was not believable. Kerry said he favored civil unions, not full marriage, a common enough approach. Yet he also said gay people were born that way, so why would he want to consign them to a second-class status? Likewise, Kerry never offered a cogent explanation for why he opposed equal marriage and a federal amendment banning it, or for why he said the states were handling the matter just fine but wanted his own Massachusetts to reverse course and retract them at once.
Whether you opposed marriage rights or desperately needed them, you could never be sure Kerry meant what he said. Civil unions? "We didn't believe he believed that," says Julie Goodridge, one-half of the couple who dared to sue for marriage rights in Massachusetts. "We thought that he would change his mind once he got in and thought it through."
Although Goodridge's friends have called to say they're sorry she's being blamed for Kerry's loss, no one has actually called to blame her. And aside from me, no reporter has asked whether she thinks it's her fault or whether she regrets asking for her rights (answer: no). Democrats blame the judge who wrote the Goodridge opinion, or San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom for creating a circus of queer matrimony, but they don't turn their anger on those most affected by the issueat least, not in public.
After watching Kerry founder on this issue for several months, Bush came out for civil unions, sort of, in the last days of the campaign, and then hauled Mary Cheney and her partner onto the stage, finally, for his victory speech. Bush ended up with nearly the same position as his vanquished opponent, excepting the president's support for that constitutional amendment, and he had queers right up there with him. No wonder polls report that an astonishing one in five gay voters went Bush's way.
With Bush, you could almost decide his homophobia had been a ploy. With Kerry, you knew that he liked you, he just lacked the courage to say so.
Democrats today suffer from a credibility gap on a range of issues. We call ourselves the party of civil rights and affirmative action, then we ignore African American concerns until the last weeks of the election. We say we're the party of the working class, then we put a billionaire and a millionaire on the ticket. We make a great show of mourning the end of class mobility, then we try to tell voters that working hard is the surefire way to get ahead. Who believes that nonsense anymore? Voters can see for themselves, in their own lives, that if you're born poor, you're almost bound to stay poor.
Now comes this question of same-sex marriage, a question that will not go away, though the left has very practical reasons for wishing it would. I can't pretend to know that what I'm about to say makes sense as anything beyond a method of political suicide. I woke up November 3 no longer believing this world is knowable in the least. But perhaps in this chaos there is light enough to see the outlines of a new beginning, and the one I propose is this: that the Democratic Party support full marriage rights, moving through a period of civil unions if we must, but only with the express understanding of the ultimate goal.
Would that cost us another election? It might, but it would give us back our soul, just as standing against the invasion of Iraq would have. We must be honest with ourselves, morally and intellectually, and we must also be honest with those whose votes we seek. For if we sell ourselves short, or sell ourselves out, there will be nothing for voters to buy.