BLAME IT ON Will. And Jack. Blame it on the “ultimate survivor,” Richard Hatch. Go ahead, blame it all on Ellen. Gay men and lesbians permeate television programming ad nauseam. Straight TV stars swapping same-sex kisses are the series season finales du jour. Thirty-one years after Stonewall, 31 years of marches, and this is what it’s come to? Jennifer Aniston bussing Winona Ryder in prime time and Middle America at home on its collective couch congratulating itself for not cringing?
Visibility at any cost. For some, it’s been a mantra. Even noted gay playwright and activist Harvey Fierstein uttered that phrase in the revealing documentary about negative images of gays and lesbians in movies, The Celluloid Closet. Certainly few would argue that it was better in the dark ages of mainstream entertainment, when gay and lesbian characters were relegated to the shadows and relegated by the production code to psychopathy or suicide or both. But with every over-hyped Friends wedding or ballyhooed coming-out episode, with every same-sex kiss and all the attendant hoopla on Entertainment Tonight, has come a price. The patina of popular culture covers up anything thorny or substantive; it tarnishes us all with its inconsequence.
Its cost to the gay and lesbian civil-rights struggle has been the illusion of progress. Since television is the great equalizer in our instant-gratification, 15-minutes-of-fame-obsessed culture, most Americans, even the educated, aware, and progressive, think gay men and lesbians are doing just fine in 2001. We are everywhere, right? We are in America’s living rooms most nights of the week over the bean dip. Never mind that the only TV show that attempted to be about gay identity and not just gay behavior (and that was controlled creatively by an out gay star) was jettisoned, with even some gay critics complaining that Ellen DeGeneres “went too far.” Never mind that all those sensationalized same-sex kisses and coming-out episodes are the modern dramatic equivalent of the mad twin descending from the attic just before the curtain falls. We are on TV; therefore, we are legitimized. Hell, even Regis doesn’t flinch anymore when his contestants on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? introduce their partners in the audience.
So where’s the beef?
Right here in the Bay State there’s actually a bona fide civil-rights issue bubbling up that underscores the inequities for gays and lesbians and spotlights the hypocrisy of a culture that revels in media images but steps back from real recognition of its gay citizenry. It just might be enough to motivate even the comfortable into political action. It just might be enough to push so-called allies past lip service and toward deeper identification.
Seven gay and lesbian couples filed a lawsuit in April in Suffolk Superior Court after being denied marriage licenses at their own city and town halls. Boston’s Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is representing the seven couples in their case, Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health (that’s the agency that enforces state laws pertaining to marriage). The suit seeks for the couples — some of whom have children, all of whom have been together from five to 30 years — the same legal protections and obligations afforded to heterosexual couples by civil marriage. The suit has nothing to do with religious doctrine or ceremony — that seemingly insurmountable obstacle for same-sex-marriage opponents. It is about the law, which accords one set of legal benefits to straight couples and denies them outright to gay and lesbian couples. It will likely take years for this lawsuit to wend its way through the courts. But it is the battle that cuts to the fundamental roots of fairness and equity in the one area that separates homosexual couples from heterosexual ones: our choice of life partners.
WHEN THE Boston Pride parade steps off for the 31st year this June 9, organizers and participants alike have the chance to use the annual demonstration of visibility to showcase this far-reaching civil-rights cause. The Pride parade has traditionally encompassed so many political, social, and cultural messages that the purpose of the march has become blurred for many of us. In recent years, Pride has seemed just a big summer block party for the young and newly out. This year’s event could be — should be — much more.
The Boston Pride event is in no way connected to the lawsuit or even to the larger issues of gay marriage. That fight has been waged on several fronts by local groups like the Freedom To Marry Coalition of Massachusetts ever since the state of Hawaii first broached the marriage issue. Last year, Vermont took the country’s sole step so far in recognizing same-sex unions when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny legal marriage rights to gays and lesbians. The court ordered the state legislature to grant the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
I am among legions of lesbians and gay men who are decidedly ambivalent about marriage. I’ve never, even when I was young, dreamed of a wedding day; never envied the pageantry of a ceremony or the legality of a marriage license as the social validation of a relationship. I have big problems with the elevation of romance and coupledom in our culture, and bigger problems with the patriarchal roots of modern marriage. And I view marriage benefits as blatantly discriminatory against the unmarried. Still — and that’s a very big still — as long as marriage remains our highest sanctioned social institution, with a host of financial benefits that can be attained no other way, then, even for me, it is the line in the sand.
And I am digging in because I am tired of well-meaning but ill-informed relatives and friends telling me about all the benefits I have now, thanks to Will and Jack and Ellen. Lesbians and gay men can get “married” if we want to — at least in Hawaii and Vermont, right? Health benefits for domestic partners are available everywhere now, aren’t they? You can’t be fired for being gay. There’s a law against that now, isn’t there? The steady stream of issues, legislation, rhetoric, and images, when caught casually by those without a stake in the matter, has created the illusion of change. The marriage issue makes clear, painfully so to some of us, that despite social and cultural progress, gay men and lesbians are still second-class citizens in the eyes of the law. We’re mandated to pay into Social Security, say, but if we have partners, we’re prohibited from ever enjoying its full benefits. We’re mandated to pay taxes, but gay and lesbian couples with children don’t enjoy the same tax breaks as straight couples with children. And whenever these issues are raised, as they have been with Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, you can bet on an avalanche of virulent opposition and political cowering.
When a bill that would have made it illegal in the state of Maine to fire workers for being gay failed last year, one of the reasons cited was voter confusion. Uninformed or vaguely informed voters thought such strides had already been made; others confused this ballot question with other gay-related topics of elections past. The defeat of the anti-discrimination measure — which had, mind you, nothing to do with marriage — galvanized creation of the new “Ad Hoc Committee for Marriage and Family” to fight the “gay agenda” that undermines traditional family values. This conservative group is now gunning to overturn Maine’s new policy of granting domestic-partner benefits to its state employees — the kind of second-tier, second-class benefit that many gay-marriage opponents proudly promise they will support.
It is understandable that well-intentioned people who don’t know any better would turn small steps of progress into mammoth strides. Like several other states, Massachusetts has legislation pending that would provide partner benefits to government employees. Many private companies provide such benefits for their employees — in the interest of fairness, in the interest of luring talent. But such arbitrary extras do not come close to providing the strong and sweeping array of benefits that civil marriage provides automatically with the signing of a marriage license. And few of the liberal do-gooders who eagerly tout their support for domestic-partnership benefits are even aware of the negative tax consequences for the employees who take advantage of these benefits (the full value of the benefit is added to an employee’s salary and taxed as income).
The M-word sends even well-meaning liberal heterosexuals into hysterics as they squirm to protect their beleaguered institution from the greedy gays. Message to the just-don’t-call-it-marriage camp: soaring divorce rates, domestic violence, Darva Conger, and Temptation Island have done a heck of a lot more harm to the sanctity of the institution than any gay-male or lesbian couple ever will. And why should we be grateful for the consolation prize of civil unions, the marital version of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise? The marriage issue is fundamentally about equality and fairness, not less, certainly not more.
Civil unions, of course, are fine for those seeking the ritual and legitimacy of a ceremony. But they create a separate institution for gays and straights and do not — do not! — provide access to any of the federal protections of heterosexual marriage, such as Social Security benefits for surviving spouses. Marriage, for all its flaws, is still a giant safety net in times of illness, disability, and death.
THAT’S WHY I’m hoping the local Pride march this year reflects this latest surge of activism, this direct outgrowth of the movement to create personal visibility about the complexity of our lives. The lawsuit and the highly charged marriage debate should give the march — which has devolved into a party and not a political event — a much-needed shot of timeliness and urgency. And the apathetic among us needn’t worry: you can bet there will still be lots of tacky floats blasting loud music, gyrating boys in G-strings, and girls with pierced body parts to please and offend.
The great marriage debate serves to underscore how much civil progress has lagged behind cultural acceptance. There’s long been a rift in the gay and lesbian movement over the pursuit of cultural strides versus the pursuit of civil rights. The marriage issue moves us fast toward the civil-rights side. The fear and ignorance about same-sex marriage illustrates the price we have paid for a movement that has so often focused on cultural symbolism as superficial as a pair of gay men in a Volkswagen ad. We’ve been bamboozled by the illusion that gay and lesbian social progress is measured by the imprimatur of pop-culture visibility.
If it’s all about image, then few images were as ironic as newly anointed Governor Jane Swift, then pregnant with her twins and facing criticism for her unconventional (by political standards) family choices, declaring not 24 hours after assuming office that she opposed any effort to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts. “Marriage and the recognition of marriage is an important institution in our Commonwealth and in our country and should be for heterosexual couples,” asserted the new governor and mother-to-be, despite having stated in the past that lesbians and gay men deserve basic protections including employment benefits for gay partners.
Of course, our family-oriented Republican governor isn’t the only pol who has run for cover at the prospect of gay and lesbian marriage. Some activists noted that Swift’s benevolent gay-bashing just hours after she became acting governor might spark a movement to push for a more progressive gubernatorial candidate next year. But the search may prove difficult. Two potential opponents of Swift — former state senator Warren Tolman and State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, both social liberals — are on the record opposing same-sex marriage, although they do support some form of civil-union benefits.
Semantics? Perhaps. If gay and lesbian couples achieve the same hard benefits with “civil unions” as with marriage — civil marriage, mind you, not a religious ceremony — who cares what it is called? But it seems to be exactly what it is called that makes both pols and John Q. Public apoplectic. Image, as always, matters more than fact.
For many years, conservatives have used the gay “agenda” — and this includes marriage, as well as gay adoption and parenting — as an impetus to launch offensive attacks on gay and lesbian progress. Earlier this year, Massachusetts state representative John Rogers, a Norwood Democrat, introduced for the second time a bill that would define marriage in Massachusetts as between one man and one woman and prohibit attaching benefits to any other type of union. Gay and lesbian activists and allies have mobilized against this bill — many turned out for a demonstration at the State House May 17 — while still pushing for the marriage lawsuit.
Then, of course, there was the notorious federal Defense of Marriage Act — defending it against what, exactly? — passed by Congress in 1996 and signed in the dead of night by President Clinton. “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages,” said Clinton, the candidate who had campaigned on promises of gay equality in the barracks and who won election in 1992 due in no small part to widespread gay and lesbian support.
What is it about the marriage issue that causes even our political allies to run for cover? And why has the mainstream press so often failed to hold these politicians to their convictions, as if complicit in the understanding that, when it comes to marriage, everybody knows we are not all equal — and the shotgun wedding after a night of debauchery is more equal than the most committed gay or lesbian union. Even more cynical is the implicit understanding that pols can pay lip service to gays, but when it comes to unpopular issues they are expected to be politically savvy, not morally honorable. Not courageous.
It’s nice to see more and more gay characters in movies and on TV, but given the choice between slick, silly representations that change with the winds of the fall TV schedule and real recognition, guess which most of us would choose? Which would you choose? And marriage is that real recognition, even for those of us who, like many of our straight counterparts, may not actually pursue the option. It’s the difference between civil liberty and cultural acceptance, between progress and posturing. It’s the difference between illusion and reality. The difference matters.
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.