Last night I went to a strategy meeting on gay marriage at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center. During the open discussion period, one person asked whether pushing too hard might turn gay marriage into the “Ralph Nader of this election year.”
It’s a fear that no reasonable person would dismiss out of hand. But I think we should take the risk of not yielding to it. With the marriages in San Francisco and New Paltz, and the impending marriages in Massachusetts, the issue has a momentum unprecedented in American history, and to let it dissipate would be a foolish prudence. If gay marriages stay on the books even in just one municipality, the gain will be enormous. At last night’s meeting, Lawrence Moss explained that New York City is actually in a better legal position to certify gay marriages than San Francisco. A recent popular referendum limited California marriages to heterosexuals, but New York State law is gender-neutral on marriage. In upstate New York, clerks must consult with the health department in Albany before issuing marriage licenses, but the New York City clerk has the authority to issue them on his own. In other words, if the clerk of New York City chose to, he could marry lesbians and gays with 100% legality tomorrow. Bloomberg could ask the clerk to do it; so could the city council. Giuliani famously moved in with a gay couple following his divorce, and I can’t help but wonder whether, if he were still mayor, the clerk would already have been asked to issue them.
There will be a backlash, but right now it looks as if the Republicans are at least as demoralized and at sea on the issue as the Democrats. In fact, some early signs suggest that Americans will see Bush’s proposal to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage for the bigoted and hateful act that it is. Supporters of Bush’s amendment say things like “Homosexuals are disillusioned by lies from Satan.” Most Americans are not so blinded by hate that they cherish any illusions about Satan, homosexuals, or tolerance in the first place. The Republican National Convention will take place in New York City, where it is difficult to dodge either homosexuals or humanity. I doubt that political pressure on the issue will have abated by then.
On the other hand, the Democratic National Convention will take place in Boston, a city somewhat further along in the struggle over gay marriage, and one is not terrifically cheered by the positions that the Democratic presidential candidates have taken on the issue. In The New Republic of 23 February 2004, Noam Scheiber made this analysis of John Kerry and gay marriage: “The question . . . , I guess, is whether he’d rather be defined as a hopeless liberal or a hopeless panderer. Not a choice I’d want to make.” The analysis was probably written a couple of weeks ago; the cynicism of it already seems dated. But even when I read it last week, I thought to myself, well, if you do face two choices that seem equally “hopeless” as short-term political strategies, why not turn the impasse to your advantage by choosing to do what is right? So far, neither Kerry nor Edwards has, unfortunately. (Among the candidates, the best line on the issue to date belongs to Al Sharpton: “The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether either of you have a job when you get up in the morning.”)
But although the presidential candidates have been unhelpful, less stratospheric politicians have become heroes of gay marriage: Gavin Newsom, Jason West, and now Eliot Spitzer, who has declined Pataki’s request that he halt the marriages in New Paltz. The lesbian and gay movement has allies in the straight community now that weren’t available in the 1980s and even the 1990s (voters under thirty, for example, overwhelmingly support gay marriage). We will need styles of activism that take advantage of their support, and we may not have discovered yet what they are.