It wasn’t that I was surprised about Maine voters banning gay marriage. Although I knew that thirty other votes on the issue had gone against gay marriage and that conservatives bent upon “preserving” marriage (as in, heterosexual marriage) poured huge amounts of money into this Maine referendum (as was the case last year in California), I have to admit that I was a little bit hopeful, because the race seemed so close (even though the outcome, 47 percent upholding rights for same-sex marriage-53 approving the repeal, wasn’t) and the Governor John Baldacci’s support of marriage equality was inspiring, and here in New England, we seem to be cutting edge Yankees (live-and-let-live).
Still, the far-right wing’s tactics are clear, simply retreads of last year’s California strategy (read: heap on the fear, most especially the teach gayness in school fabrications, and then watch attendant intolerance be spun into votes against marriage equality). So, at this point, if it wasn’t already clear enough before, we can safely say that civil rights cannot be put to a popular vote. Writing for the Guardian (from across the pond, in the UK) Melissa McEwan writes, “Just because something is popular doesn't make it right.”
Therein lies the crux of the matter.
McEwan points out that often the court weighs in on the other side of popular opinion, citing this quote by John Rodgers: "When the supreme court struck down the bans against interracial marriage in 1968 through Virginia v Loving, 72% of Americans were against interracial marriage. As a matter of fact, approval of interracial marriage in the US didn't cross the positive threshold until – sweet God – 1991.” That would have been a very long wait, indeed. Even now, there are countless racist incidents, take as ready example that last month Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to marry an interracial couple, because he thought such unions were wrong for any future children (he resigned, safe to say, under duress).
With gay marriage, too, Andrew Sullivan writes in the Atlantic blog, children represent the flash point for all that fear leading to all that intolerance: “The hard truth is: people are still afraid of this, and our opponents knew how to target their fears very precisely. They have honed it to an art – their prime argument now is that although adults can handle gay equality, children cannot. And so they play straight to heterosexuals whose personal comfort with gay people is fine but who sure don't want their kids to turn out that way.”
Wednesday evening, a group of women got together—organized, not spontaneously—to share in an evening of art (at Lindsay Fogg-Willits’ wonderful Art Always studio, where she more often teaches art classes to our children, but on this evening set out a project for the grown-ups) and conversation turned to that first May morning (the 17th, 2004) same-sex marriage was legal in Massachusetts. My friend, Randi, described how she happened upon the scene—a hoard of people at City Hall, obtaining marriage licenses, some of them getting married on the spot—with her son, Jonah, now 14. She recalled saying to him, “Look, that couple (two women) coming across the street, legally married. That’s historic.” Because so many of his friends had two moms, he was unimpressed. “Why is that historic?” he asked. In his eyes, all those moms and kids were families, same as his. He didn’t measure their veracity by legalities or a rigid definition of family as a mom and a dad together constituting parents and anything different not being real. He accepted that loving parents raising kids equals family, period.
Before dropping our kids off at school that particular morning, we went as a family to City Hall. It wasn’t that we thought our kids would remember being present for an historic occasion (we did not) but still, we wanted to share in the celebration as a family with all those other families finally receiving something that had seemed so unattainable, and not so long before that, kind of unfathomable. My kids, like their friend, Jonah, really didn’t see what the big deal was about same-sex marriage for the exact same reason; they assumed all their friends with two moms or two dads (more rare here, but they know a few) were married and those little distinctions about legality were basically invisible and unimportant. Still, there were treats and there was hoopla and laughter and tears and it was impossible not to feel joy. I saw, in their pleasure at the spirit of celebration, they experienced the outpouring, too.
My friend, Michael, and I returned to City Hall after the kids were in school. The draw to witness and share in the celebration was kind of magnetic. Our friends, marriage license in hand, and their two sons were waiting their turn to get married. There was quite a lot of waiting that morning, even though the City Clerk’s office had tried to prepare for what they knew would be beyond unusual (read: huge—and it was, in Northampton, and across the state, over 1,000 applications were made that day). Invited to their ceremony, we waited with them, noting that other kids whose moms were marrying that day also didn’t comprehend that their parents weren’t already married. The kids were, frankly, bored by then.
Abbie Goldberg, in her book (Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle) found that children of lesbian and gay parents don’t see their family constellations as remarkable, nor is the experience of parenting particularly different for lesbian and gay parents and heterosexual parents. As Stephanie Woolley-Larrea, 36, of Miami said of preparing her seven year-old triplets for potential ridicule because there family is different in a USA Today story this week, the ridicule hasn’t come and Woolley-Larrea says her kids "think it is much more unusual that they are triplets than that they have gay moms." Here’s how to interpret children’s ease (especially in places where same-sex marriage is readily or at least more readily accepted): the future looks bright.
Andrew Sullivan makes this very astute point: “In my view, the desperate nature of the current tactics against us, the blatant use of fear around children (which both worries parents and also stigmatizes gay people in one, deft swoop) are signs that what we are demanding truly, truly matters.”
I agree: what we are demanding—marriage, equality—truly, truly matters. Before dear husband and I got married sixteen years ago, we struggled with the decision because marriage was exclusive, and that was clearly wrong. We didn’t believe we needed marriage to make clear to one another our commitment to the relationship nor to feel comfortable having children (which we planned to do). Marriage, at that time in our lives at least, seemed to be something that other people recognized, a potential stigma lifted. Whether it was true or not I can’t really say, but we imagined that extended family members would care about our “living in sin” or having children outside of wedlock (looking back, I think that years earlier that might have been true, but even by the time we married, those views in the extended family were changing; had our relationship occurred even three or four years later, we might not have perceived this to be such a compelling issue). But as it was, my grandfather—in all good humor—toasted our no longer “living in sin,” and it was clear—mainly because grandparents and others felt pleased about how we seemed together—a great deal of happiness surrounding our union.
Here’s what I know in my heart of hearts; we didn’t once think, if we just put this whole marriage thing off for about a decade, then gay people will be getting married in Massachusetts and we won’t feel badly about marrying at all. Same-sex marriage didn’t seem like a question of when in those days—at least to me—it seemed like if.
Had I been able to step back just a bit, maybe I’d have perceived the tides just hinting at a turn in the favor of same-sex marriage. When our friends put an engagement announcement in the local paper in December, 1991 (a first in the country), they never imagined a newspaper article about Northampton would pick up on it (written by a Smith parent or prospective parent passing through) with this sentiment, they were young, they were in love and they wanted the whole world to know about it. Cue Northampton’s Lesbianville period. At the time, all that attention—the National Enquirer did a story, so did ABC ‘s 20/20—seemed specific to this place. But by 2002, the New York Times began announcing same-sex unions in its weddings’ listings.
Some of the conversations and arguments about this as an organizing focus revealed a divide within the LGBT community (still there, although perhaps less strongly or divisively now), because a lot of people wondered why gay and lesbian people would want to get married. Heterosexual allies, supporters of equality, wondered the same thing, too. Let’s face it; historically, heterosexual marriage has not been an egalitarian institution. Wouldn’t gay and lesbian people want to create something better, or at least something without so much baggage?
Personally, I was won over to see what a wise choice this was (over something like discrimination in the workplace, which is nebulous in a way that marriage isn’t; marriage is concrete). There are so many connotations about marriage that have to do with family and community. People are familiar with its outlines, even if details—including the gender of both spouses—change. What’s more, beyond all the feel-good stuff, marriage offers benefits and protections. If—when—recognized across the country, hospital emergency rooms and family court won’t exist on such shaky ground for same-sex couples—or former couples. Along with all else, marriage offers divorce (and prenuptial agreements, custody precedents and all of that legal stuff that potentially protects everyone within a family if things unravel between a couple). Until I saw the extended family of longtime loves meet for the first time after nearly two decades and then embrace one another as family, I didn’t wholly appreciate same-sex marriage’s importance. Until I witnessed a friend’s very tenuous struggle to retain legal ties to her children, the protections of divorce in action, I didn’t wholly appreciate same-sex marriage’s importance.
There are, and this should not be overlooked, so many ways that acceptance of gay and lesbian people is demonstrable, including opinion polls (maybe not majorities, but evidence that we’re in the thick of it, of change, and that younger people are far more tolerant than older ones and so, over time, acceptance is bound to overtake). In an editorial in USA Today, Richard Florida posits that gay tolerant places prosper economically because, “Creative, innovative and entrepreneurial activities tend to flourish in the same kinds of places that attract gays and others outside the norm. To put it bluntly, a place where it's OK for men to walk down the street holding hands will probably also be a place where Indian engineers, tattooed software geeks and foreign-born entrepreneurs feel at home. When people from varied backgrounds, places and attitudes can collide, economic home runs are likely.”
On television, it’s been over a decade (1997) since Ellen DeGeneres’ character came out (months after the real Ellen came out; now, she’s married to actress Portia de Rossi. DeGeneres’ career faltered she came out. These days, though, both DeGeneres’ and de Rossi’s careers are soaring. Brothers and Sisters had a beautiful same-sex wedding (complete with real smooch at the end, and the couple are contemplating parenthood) and popular, new comedy Modern Family has a gay couple (one man, a former professional football player, no less) with a new baby adopted from Vietnam. In children’s literature, Leslea Newman’s groundbreaking picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies, recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Heather is not alone anymore, enjoying company with such wonderful picture books as Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland’s King and King and Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson’s (illustrator, Henry Cole) And Tango Makes Three, books that are popular (if also, in some places, banned, Tango, the most banned in 2006).
Eventually, marriage equality—not perfectly, not without glitches and bumps and bruises—will prevail. It seems like we can really wonder not if, but when. Our charge is really this: keep working toward a vision of that more just, equitable world. Keep supporting children to be comfortable and accepting of others and themselves (in every which way, and certainly surrounding issues of gender and sexuality). The children will grow up. If we adults keep working hard, the grown children will realize the more just, equitable world. And, if we’ve done our work right, they won’t even always marvel at what a big deal that will be.