Families Forged by Illness

By Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 04/06/06):

WE feared for our lives; we prayed for a remedy. What none of us in the gay world imagined, when word of a mysterious affliction surfaced 25 years ago, was what proved to be the epidemic’s most important moral legacy: AIDS transformed the gay-marriage movement from implausible to inevitable.

In May 1970, two men applied for a marriage license in Minnesota and then filed suit after being refused. The gay world hardly noticed. “Support for marriage was a distinctly minority position in the gay and lesbian movement,” wrote the historian George Chauncey. “After an initial flurry of activity, marriage virtually disappeared as a goal of the movement.”

Marriage, after all, hardly seemed relevant. The master narrative for gay life was: come out, leave home, gorge at the banquet of sexual liberation. Gay men celebrated their image as sexual rebels; straight America was happy to consign them to that role. After 1981, the master narrative changed from ubiquitous sex to ubiquitous death. Death became, as the writer Andrew Sullivan noted at the height of the epidemic, not just an event in gay America but “an environment.” For the stricken there were lesions, chills, wasting, death; for friends and lovers, there was grief compounded by despair.

But there was also an epidemic of care giving. Lovers, friends and AIDS “buddies” were spooning food, emptying bedpans, holding wracked bodies through the night. They were assuming the burdens of marriage at its hardest. They were also showing that no relative, government program or charity is as dependable or consoling as a dedicated partner.

Yet gay partners were strangers to each other in the law’s eyes. They were ineligible for spousal health insurance that they desperately needed; they were often barred from hospital rooms, locked out of homes they had shared for years, even shut out of the country if they were foreign citizens. Their love went unmentioned at funerals; their bequests were challenged and ignored. Heterosexual couples solved all those problems with a $30 marriage license. Gay couples couldn’t solve them at any price.

Though few said so (no one wanted to be callous, not with people dying), many also knew that the culture of promiscuity and alienation was a culture of death. In 1981, I was 21 and terrified of coming out. I feared disease and discrimination, but even more I feared the cultural isolation and anomie of the gay ghetto. If being gay meant rejecting mainstream values, having disconnected sex and then dying, I wanted no part of it.

To me, the idea of same-sex marriage sounded like the Coast Guard’s hail to a castaway. It promised a new narrative: of commitment, of connectedness, of a community bound by stories of love, not death. For many gay people, the logic of marriage became as compelling as it had once been contemptible.

The public changed, too. Support for legal same-sex relations reached its nadir in the second half of the 1980’s, according to Gallup polling, but the 1990’s brought a surprise. The share of the public saying consensual same-sex relations should be legal rebounded and then became a majority, as did the percentage saying homosexuality “should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle.”

Watching gays become family to each other, the public saw nobility. AIDS reminded the country that a good marriage is the best public-health measure known to man. “Gay marriage,” so recently an oxymoron, began to make sense.

Yes, the idea of same-sex marriage predated AIDS. But would gay America have internalized as deeply the need for marriage if it had not first internalized H.I.V.? Would straight America have been as willing to consider gay marriage if not for AIDS? Impossible. In gay cultural history, marriage is to AIDS much as Israel is to the Holocaust in Jewish cultural history. It offers a safer shore, a better life, and a promise: never again.