Saturday, 12 May 2012

Gay Marriage Won't Change the Meaning of Marriage. But it will Change the Meaning of Gay

If you have been avoiding all news sources for the past week, you may have missed the moment when President Obama came out and expressed his personal support for allowing same sex couples to marry.

As it happens, the President made this statement while I was attending a reception for US citizens at the American Embassy. We were required to surrender all electronic devices before going in, so I walked in knowing that the President was expected to make some sort of statement about this issue, then walked out an hour later, checked the news and had the uncanny sensation that the world had changed while I was inside.

That probably seems melodramatic. After all, in terms of policy - the President's statement changes little. Perhaps nothing. President Obama has long been on the record stating that believes there should be no difference whatsoever in the law between committed same sex couples and married straight couples. He favoured a version of civil unions that would offer full legal protection to these couples. But, of course, the president's views on this are not especially relevant since decisions about the issuance of marriage license are made at a state level - and although some states (including most recently New York) have recently allowed gay couples to marry, others are moving in the opposite direction. Including, of course, North Carolina - which only the day before the President's statement had overwhelmingly voted in favour of a referendum that  would add a prohibition against both civil unions and gay marriage directly into the state constitution. (It has been noted that the last time North Carolina amended their state constitution, it was to ban interracial marriage. Plus ca change...)

So why, then, this sense that the world was in some way fundamentally different now?

I think back to my first year of college - in 1992. That was the year Bill Clinton became President. It was the  year I turned 18, and voted for the first time, and lived on my own for the first time. It was also the first time I met anyone who was openly gay. Actually, I met a lot of people who were openly gay or bisexual that year. And thank goodness I did, because it instantly cured me of the embarrassing crime of being unreflectively homophobic. And I do mean instantly. I grew up in a small town at a time when no one of high school age was openly gay (although I now know, several of the people I knew well in high school were closeted gay. Oops.) so I never had the opportunity of getting to know anyone who identified as a sexual minority. But the very instant that I realised some of my new friends were gay or bisexual, I flipped - like a coin toss. These people were great! Funny, and kind. Smart and interesting. Mature sometimes, ridiculously silly others. They were the sort of friends I'd been searching for all my awkward teenage years.

In the Spring of that year, I marched in a huge gay rights parade in Washington, DC, on a beautiful sunny day. I remember that Ellen DeGeneres, who at that point was a relatively minor stand up comic, gave a speech referencing her own lesbianism so openly that several years later when she officially came out of the closet I was really confused ("I thought we all knew that?").

But even in the sunniest mood on that sunny day, I never would have imagined that just 20 years legalised gay marriage would be the mainstream and reasonable position of a popular and centrist US President. At that time homosexual acts were still illegal in many states (this was before the Supreme Court Deciaion in Lawrence V Texas that protected the right to private sexual acts). Employment discrimination was relatively routine against gays and lesbians. A teacher at my high school who I only later on realised must have been gay was so fiercely closeted that he visibly panicked when I ran into him with a male friend at an out of town theater. Goodness. He must have been terrified - it wasn't that uncommon then for teachers to be fired or "encouraged" to resign if they were found to be gay.

We were just coming off the worst years of the AIDS crisis, and I remember that the AIDS quilt was brought to the Capitol and spread out in the Mall between the Washington and Lincolm memorial.

The goals of the gay rights movement then seemed on the one hand so modest, and on the other so unreachable - essentially... to be left alone. "Please don't discriminate against us." "Please allow us to serve in the military."

The idea of the government providing formal legal protection to gay couples in the form of civil unions was at that time considered pretty extreme. And there were many on the left who opposed the idea of gay marriage at all. Because, in their view, marriage was an elite bourgeois institution perpetuating gender stereotypes and unrealistic ideas of lifelong monogamy. Or some such nonsense.

Basically, both the left and the right agreed about one thing - being gay would never be "normal". Gay people would never settle down in suburbs and raise children. They would never marry in a church. They would never file a joint tax return. They would be cursed (in the right's view) or privileged (in the left's view) with a perpetual existence of lifestyle nonconformity.

Now, there's nothing wrong with living a transgressive life. If you want to enact in your life a non-monogomous relationship model, or if permanent commitment isn't for you, or if you just don't buy into any of the prevailing norms about family formation - good for you. Go forth, be free - live your life and best wishes.

But at the time, I think most of the people at that DC march believed that so-called normality would never be an option for them. That whatever their own inclinations may be, the best gay people could hope for was to be tolerated.

But today, we have come so far as a country that the President of the United States - in an election year - can come out and say gay people should have the option of being celebrated and honoured for their commitment. Because, putting aside all the legalities - that's the function of marriage. It is for society to affirmatively honour, respect and support the commitment of two people to each other. That's why so many marriage ceremonies include a moment when the priest asks the congregation to make vows to the couple. Because, to steal a phrase from Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to enact a marriage.

Famously, around the same time that I was marching in Washington for gay rights, President Clinton was agreeing a "compromise" that would allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military - so long as they lied about who they were. A couple years later, under duress, he signed the so called "Defence of Marriage Act" which has the perverse effect now of preventing couples who are legally married in some states from having their marriages recognised elsewhere.

What President Obama did this week was historic - not because it was radical, but because it was... normal.

He made both a common sense and a compassionate argument. How could he, a man whose parents' marriage would have been illegal in many states of the Union at the time he was born, explain to his daughter why the parents of their friends should not be allowed to marry? He couldn't. Of course he couldn't. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

Mitt Romney says he not only won't support same sex marriage - he won't support civil unions (which even President Bush said he could support).

Mitt is living in a different America than the President is. An America that looks a lot like that closeted small town I grew up in. It's a worse America. I am so glad that I moved out of that place in my mind so many years ago, and I'm so glad to move forward with the President into a new America where equality can be real and meaningful.