There’s nothing like having the wind of public opinion at your back on a controversial issue. I used to, but the wind changed. Gay marriage will come to my adopted state if voters let stand the Maryland legislature’s recently passed same-sex marriage law. The gradual leftward shift on this, in Maryland and nationally, defies a prediction I made years ago. Mine is no longer the clear majority view – and it certainly never was among my fellow homosexuals. Ignoring the matter as long as possible has been my response. But time’s up. The November 6 vote is near. Having consulted my conscience, I find that my opposition remains.
It would be wimpy to tiptoe quietly to the polls. Not when the “Yes on 6” side is having so much fun mobilizing politically, financially, and even theatrically. Three local stage companies have put on plays intended to boost support for same-sex marriage in the run-up to the election. I decided that, forced to again take up this question, I could at least mobilize myself to enter the civic arena and attend some live theater.
My field trips, about which more below, prompted rumination about plays for the opposition to mount – if so inclined, which of course they’re not – that would cast an approving glow over heterosexual matrimony. Eugene O’Neill? Edward Albee? The more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that a staple of the modern theater has been husbands treating wives perfectly shabbily and vice versa. Well then, what about that old stand-by, Shakespeare, whose comedies end in nuptials? No. He only shows the first moments of marriage. For all we can say, Beatrice and Benedick, Orlando and Rosalind and the others wind up tearing into each other with all the sadistic zest of Martha and George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Despite how they were billed in the newspaper, the three productions I saw — two in Baltimore City and one in Columbia — addressed not same-sex marriage but the past prejudices that brought down upon us the cruel contempt of our fellow citizens. Who could disagree with preachments in favor of toleration? Two out of three so preached, I should say, for “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?”, being the “edgiest” of the lot, was a total loss. A two-man play, it arrived in 2006 as British dramatist Caryl Churchill’s way of floating her theory that the UK’s close foreign policy collaboration with the United States was rooted in an erotic attraction between Tony Blair and George W. Bush. The piece has been revised to make it less keyed to those individuals and more symbolically about the evils of capitalist-imperialist Uncle Sam. But it was still expressionism, and we were still Baltimoreans. In the Q and A after the show, audience members did not hesitate to share their bafflement.
The other two were staged biographies: “The Temperamentals,” about Harry Hay, founder of the earliest gay rights organization, and “Breaking the Code,” about Alan Turing, the British computer science and artificial intelligence pioneer who played a crucial role in defeating Adolf Hitler. (Turing broke the Nazis’ Enigma code.) The latter drama, which was written by Hugh Whitemore in 1986, was well-acted. It was pitiful and searing to watch a world-historical figure being humiliated by the government he served.
While staged biographies tend to pretty up the historical record to maximize the virtues of the main character, you wouldn’t think it necessary in the case of a tragic genius like Turing. His lying to the police to mask his sexual activities is presented as noble protection of the man with whom he had sex. The young mathematician, in real life, panicked and lied to protect himself. The enhancement is gratuitous; the true version of events dims not at all our appreciation of Turing’s heroic life of achievement and suffering. British laws criminalizing homosexuality mandated either prison or estrogen treatments (Turing chose the estrogen treatments), and the ordeal drove him to suicide in 1954 at age 41.
A dash of character-sweetening in “Breaking the Code” becomes a tsunami of molasses in “The Temperamentals” – and if the molasses had a tint, it would be red. Harry Hay was a foot soldier of the Los Angeles branch of the Communist Party. Jon Marans’ play, the off-Broadway hit of 2010, acknowledges this, but reduces Hay and his fellow Reds to cheerful 1950s social-worker types standing up for the poor. There is no hint of the nasty positions Hay pushed as a devoted Stalinist (like supporting Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea). The Mattachine Society, Hay’s pioneering “homophile” group, is whitewashed; the audience never learns of Hay’s having modeled it on Communist Party cells. This falsification carries through to the climactic moment, when we see new members taking over the organization because they are conventional, diffident men who can’t abide the out-and-proud integrity of gruff but lovable Harry Hay. In real life, the ranks rebelled against a furtive, conspiracy-style structure that only a communist could love.
Hay’s story is more bizarre and fascinating than the one Marans tells. Still, the highly professional production I saw gave some impression of the profound differences between then and now — the secrecy, shame, and degradation that shrouded same-sex relationships in the mid-20th century.
None of which implies that keeping marriage what it has always been perpetuates mistreatment of gays and lesbians. It is quite a stretch to go from the dark homosexual underworld of an earlier era to Question 6 in Maryland. A stretch, I say, but not a bad public relations move, in the sense that generalized sympathy helps, or at least potentially helps, the cause. This points up what has changed about the culture war over marriage: that combatants on both sides have grown more skilled in democratic politics and finding what persuades an electorate.
Gays and lesbians are making big strides toward marriage, helped by the fact that they have largely stopped letting outré postmodernists speak for them. I recall one Yale scholar, back in 2004, telling National Public Radio that the institution of marriage is boringly bourgeois and therefore, as we homosexuals demand entry into it, we ought to “decenter” monogamy. The following year, Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog posted online at History News Network: “And those of us who advocate for gay marriage as a right in various states should acknowledge that we stand in much the same position as defenders of Mormon polygamy did in the second half of the nineteenth century, confronting a mobilized community of religious marital orthodoxy.” Nowadays groups like the Human Rights Campaign feature marriage-seeking gays and lesbians who are regular folks, more a part of mainstream America than Ivory Tower radicals.
Meanwhile, traditionalists fight a rearguard action. They have established strongholds (31 states have banned legal recognition of same-sex marriage), mostly by avoiding expressing their belief that homosexual relationships are wrong. The belief is still there, especially among the religious, but highlighted instead is that “Everyone has a right to love and respect but no one is entitled to redefine marriage.” That’s from the ad campaign for “No on 6” in Maryland; I agree.
It is often said that marriage must be made available to homosexuals since homosexuality is an inherent biological trait. Well-meaning straight people – or, “the 97 percent,” in current parlance — are suckers for this approach but it is less than sound. Truly, the “gay gene” people on the left, as well as those on the right who look to deficient parenting and/or recruitment to explain same-sex attraction, are guilty of breathtaking overconfidence. What imponderable combination of nature, environment, and choice makes me or anyone else homosexual is something that at this point only God knows.
Equating homosexuality with race and ethnicity is dubious, too. Not permitting marriage between blacks and whites is unlike not permitting same-sex marriage. The miscegenation laws pulled apart generative pairs. Those laws stood in nature’s way, whereas same-sex marriage — especially, but not only, if children are involved — is a work-around to evade nature’s iron realities. So there is a right to interracial marriage but not to matrimony between two individuals who are “not even potentially partners in reproduction,” in the words of Susan M. Shell.
The Boston College political theorist wrote an article called “The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage.” That was in 2004 – a startling reminder that there was a liberal case against gay marriage not too long ago. It almost sounds strange in today’s political environment. Professor Shell based her position on eternal verities and the secular underpinnings of the American constitutional experiment, which is why I see merit in that position regardless of the political environment.
What is sought by gay rights activists often boils down to financial benefits, inheritance rights, and other such family matters. It behooves them to acknowledge how successful they have been in gaining accommodation on many of these issues. Employers across the United States are starting to extend benefits to same-sex couples — it happened for me and my partner recently, even though the institution that extended the benefits is Catholic-run.
The liberal stance laid out by Shell embraced civil unions for same-sex couples that would enable them to adopt children and receive a partner’s health and other benefits. It had the contours, to my eye, of the sort of “sweet spot” that legislatures seek when drafting a bill that politically clashing members can approve despite their differences. Because it looks like a natural harbor for a plurality of Americans, Shellian liberalism ought to be where we are headed as a country.
If, however, same-sex marriage wins in Maryland as many expect, I will be living in a place where what I am designating the National Liberal Position is condemned as right-wing extremism by the moral authoritarians of the left. The Baltimore Sun’s Susan Reimer is a good example. Reimer had real trouble restraining herself in her weekly column, warning those who disfavor same-sex marriage: Think of the judgment of future generations and try not to give your children “reason to be ashamed of your bigotry.”
The live-and-let-live social space created by the liberal polity is a great cultural and moral accomplishment. Those who call themselves liberal today show very little of the care needed to guard and preserve this accomplishment.
Related at PJ Lifestyle on gay marriage: