Those who celebrated the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruling in favor of gay marriage know that their most bitter battles lay ahead. The court’s Nov. 18 decision that the state must begin issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples within 180 days is a historical watershed. But as in most great moments of social upheaval, progress only compounds the backlash among those determined to preserve the status quo.
Last week, opponents of gay marriage reintroduced the Federal Marriage Amendment into both houses of Congress. The amendment would cement the second-class status of homosexuals in the U.S. Constitution, our fundamental articulation of American values. The amendment reads, “Marriage in the United States shall consist of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution or [sic] the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”
President Bush’s record on gay marriage suggests that his support for the amendment is not far off. He opposes the Massachusetts ruling and has already used the presidential pulpit to institutionalize the euphemistic Defense of Marriage Week and, in a press conference this July, to insinuate that homosexuals are “sinners.” The amendment also draws support well beyond the religious right. Three of the bill’s six cosponsors in the House were Democrats, and even members of the Civil Rights movement like Walter Fauntroy, who helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, have offered their support.
Social backlash against gay marriage has become so pervasive that it even infected the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The day before the parade, Harvey Fierstein, the Tony-winning, cross-dressing actor of “Hairspray” fame, wrote an editorial in The New York Times that dared Americans to imagine a jolly and caring Santa who happened to be married to a man. He cast himself as Santa’s gay partner and anticipated riding on Santa’s float in the parade.
His bold and amusing challenge, however, met a fiery rebuff. After public condemnation from Macy’s, Fierstein was hastily moved to his own float, separate from a presumably heterosexual Santa. He was alienated and, left without much public support, issued a feeble apology.
Although gay marriage poses no threat to family values or heterosexual romance, this recognition is overshadowed by a visceral disgust with homosexuality that defies logic. In reality, married gay couples could provide more stable households for their children than many heterosexual couples. With the American divorce rate hovering at around 50 percent, and with child abuse devastatingly pervasive, it is hard to imagine that the average gay marriage would be any less stable than the average straight marriage.
Denying homosexuals the right to marry is also blatantly discriminatory and unfair. Bereft of the legal rights that come with marriage, gay couples sometimes face unfair financial hardship. Unlike married couples, they cannot share insurance policies, file joint tax returns or inherit pensions and Social Security benefits from spouses. When gay couples split up, children are not protected by courtroom proceedings that enable a judge to determine issues of custody. This leaves children vulnerable to needless emotional damage.
Equal legal rights, while essential for gay couples, are not enough to elevate them from their current second-class status. Civil unions provide equal rights but none of the emotional and often religious support of the institution of marriage. Denying gay couples the right to marry casts them as morally inferior to straight couples, and the state has no business making this hateful distinction. Supposed separate but equal institutions for gay and straight couples are inherently unequal. We should know better than to repeat the mistakes of an often-bigoted past.
Some irrationally fear that gay marriage will somehow encourage children of gay couples to become homosexual. Psychiatrists stopped diagnosing homosexuality as a disorder almost 30 years ago, and they have since recognized the futility of attempting to “cure” homosexuality. I do not know any straight people, myself included, who have contemplated “turning” homosexual upon learning of the fact that others are gay. What gay marriage would do, however, is to teach gay children that there is nothing wrong with them or their inherent sexual orientation.
Supporters of gay marriage will only win this battle if they force the issue into the American consciousness and conscience. Just as blacks did not win their rights by moving to the back of the bus, gays cannot hope to secure their rights by settling for civil unions or by letting activists like Harvey Fierstein be bullied out of the spotlight. By taking control of the debate on gay rights, the same-sex marriage movement may win support in the short term and will enable empower future generations to raise more open-minded youths.
Alan J. Tabak ’07 lives in Thayer Hall.