It’s the Symbolism, Stupid


When the Massachusetts high court ruled last week that gay couples must be granted full marriage rights, it lobbed a grenade into John Kerry’s lap. Here he is, struggling to define himself as a hog-riding, puck-slamming populist, when the patrician tradition of New England liberalism bites him in the butt.

As a senator, in 1996, Kerry stood against the tide by voting no on the Defense of Marriage Act. But now he’s doing the presidential-candidate dance, slippin’ and slidin’ to position himself between the right wing and his own progressive record. Kerry supports “equal rights” for same-sex couples but not marriage. In fact, he just might back an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution that would overturn the court’s ruling. “It depends entirely on what the language is,” Kerry says. Sounds like Bill Clinton’s famous disclaimer, “It depends on what is is.”

There’s a twisted reasoning behind Kerry’s contortion. He’s hoping the amendment in question will void the court’s decision but leave room for a civil-union statute. Something like that has happened in California, where voters passed a referendum outlawing gay marriage while the legislature enacted the nation’s most sweeping domestic-partner package. But Massachusetts is not Cali. Its history includes a certain tolerance for gay unions, dating back to the 19th century. There’s a reason why women living together in those days could be referred to as partners in a “Boston marriage.” This genteel tradition is about to collide with blue-collar values, and no one knows which force will prevail. Right now, polls show an even split.

For the present, Kerry is content to claim, “I have the same position that Dick Cheney has,” alluding to the vice president’s 2000 statement that marriage is a matter for the states to define. Of course, Cheney has now joined the crusade to amend the U.S. Constitution so that states won’t have this right. According to his campaign, Kerry opposes that drastic step. So let’s get this straight, as it were: Kerry is open to a state marriage amendment but not a federal one. This is a contradiction the Republicans won’t let stand. Given their control of Congress, odds are that Kerry will face a moment of truth on this issue. Once again gay people find themselves at the hot center of American politics.

For Kerry, the best thing would be a series of events that puts this question in suspension until the election. The state legislature is scrambling to provide that breathing room. There’s a move to petition the high court for more time to comply with its ruling. (The justices set a May deadline, but maybe they’d be willing to wait until, say, December.) Meanwhile the Boston archdiocese is pushing for a quick vote on the amendment, and it could come this week. Whatever happens, the court’s decision will stand until at least 2006, the earliest that voters can weigh in. So it looks like gay couples will be waving their marriage licenses as the gavel falls on the Democratic convention in Boston. This is not the best year to be the Bay State’s favorite son.

Considering how little would change if people of the same sex could marry, you have to wonder why this issue has such power. It’s got nothing to do with wages or war. It’s not about the deficit or the distribution of wealth. It doesn’t involve the question of when life begins. In short, there’s no material reason why gay marriage should be such a megillah. But like so much else in American politics today, this is not a matter of substance. It’s the symbolism, stupid.

Stigma is a social hormone. It stimulates the creation of order. Without stigma, hierarchy would be impossible to maintain. No one would accept an assigned place in society, and it would be hard to discriminate among moral values.

This chaotic situation is pretty much the state of American society. The history of this country is an ongoing battle between stigmatized groups and their oppressors, and every gain has produced a ferocious backlash. The abolition of slavery was just the start. The modern civil rights movement sparked major political changes, from white flight to the rise of the New Right. Feminism has had a similar, if subtler impact. The Republicans wouldn’t hold the commanding position they do if it weren’t for the migration of pissed-off white guys to the GOP.

Gay liberation should cause far less disruption than other social movements because it doesn’t threaten paychecks or require a revision of power relations between men and women. But sexual stigma has a lot to do with how groups are organized—especially male groups. Everything from sports teams to the bastions of patriarchy must be renegotiated when the status of faggots rises. This is much trickier than it might seem. When you talk about patriarchal structures you’re dealing with things like religion and the military. That’s why issues like gay marriage and the rights of homosexual soldiers are much thornier than discrimination and hate crimes.

Add to this mix the changing nature of marriage. These days, it often follows a long period of cohabitation, and divorce is common. Our ancestors would be stunned to learn that at the age of 30, a third of all American women are single. In their affectional patterns, straights are becoming more like gays once were, and vice versa. Same-sex marriage epitomizes this shift; indeed, it symbolizes everything elastic about status and structure in American life. That’s why this issue lies at the heart of the culture wars. It doesn’t just involve shared assets and visitation rights. It has to do with the patriarchal order—that is to say, the social order, and if you’re a fundamentalist, the word of God.

Behind the sacramental scrim lies the truth about gay marriage. It’s a civic issue, not a symbolic one. That’s how the social democracies of Western Europe and Canada perceive this problem. They see it as a matter of granting full citizenship to a formerly outcast group. These nations don’t have to freight gay marriage with immaterial meaning. But America is a far less cohesive society, and our politics reflect this instability. Elections hinge on the manipulation of metaphors, most of them related to status anxiety. The more the media blur the distinction between candidates and entertainers, the more these symbolic issues run the show.

It’s often said that the Democrats are bereft of symbols. They can’t play the Republican game of bashing the other, since they are the party of otherness. But that speaks to a hidden strength. Barred from the magic kingdom, the Democrats have no choice but to represent the alternative: tangibility. They can remind people that politics are about the allocation of resources, not the meaning of marriage.

Are we still living in a material world? God only knows. But one thing is clear: The most significant issue of this presidential campaign is whether Americans will be led by symbols or reality. Which side is John Kerry on?

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