Barack Obama’s decision to come out in favour of gay marriage may be a historic occasion but it is not an isolated one. His administration has been making pro-gay noises for some time; his demographic in the upcoming election is young and educated, precisely the group that favours equality for the LGBT community. Although Obama admits he was hastened into his statement by his vice president, Joe Biden, he is careful to state that he has long been planning to affirm gay marriage before the Democratic convention.
The announcement has had immediate repercussions. Gay democrats have started making big campaign donations. Sixteen senators, led by John Kerry, have protested against the immigration department’s automatic decision to deny green cards to foreign same-sex spouses of US citizens. The human rights commission has called on all members of Congress to go on record as either for or against gay marriage. Obama’s team has already launched television ads that contrast his tolerance with Romney’s anti-gay bigotry. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has made a marriage equality statement, despite his personal conviction that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
There is definitely a feeling in the air that it’s no longer permissible to deny gays the right to marriage equality; the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay conservatives, have warned their fellow Republicans that they embrace the side of bigotry at their own election peril. About 65% of Democratic voters approve of gay marriage, so the president’s stand will not injure his re-election chances among his core group.
If the president has “evolved” in his affirmation of gay marriage, so have I. Originally I was opposed to gay assimilation and targeted gay marriage as just another effort on the part of gays to resemble their straight neighbours. When the president “came out” he was careful about mentioning the many gay couples he knew, even some in government, who had loving, “committed” relationships and who were parenting children. All pretty suburban, in my opinion. Must we be among the “good gays” in order to win our civil rights? If we’re too sexual, if we’re wearing drag or leather, if we have multiple partners, if we’re seropositive, will we be thrust beyond the pale? What if we don’t want to live with the same partner for many years or adopt a Korean daughter and join the parent-teacher association?
But I became pro-marriage equality once I realised how opposed to it the Christian right is in our country. Europeans forget that one-third of the American people have had a personal conversation with Jesus Christ and that the born-again are not just little old ladies in black but also CEOs and provosts of universities and candidates for office. The Republicans are the party of the rich, of the top 1% of the population. If they are going to command majorities, they must invent phony “moral” issues that will appeal to their middle-class constituents. The assault against women’s reproductive rights is one such issue; a similar struggle against gay marriage is the other leading issue in the culture wars.
I don’t have to get married myself in order to campaign on behalf of gay marriage. I defend the right of lesbians and gays to divorce, pay alimony and raise children who turn to drugs and hate their parents; why should straights alone have all these advantages? I’ve always deplored bad heterosexual values that dictate the minute a marriage is over the former partners no longer speak to each other; only straights could be so cruel and inhuman as to reject totally the person with whom they’ve shared their life for 20 or 30 years. Now gays can regress to this level of barbarity as well.
As it turns out, I may have to get married after all. I have lived 17 years with a partner in an extremely open, non-possessive relationship. He has shared my health benefits because Princeton, where I work, has covered domestic partners. But the university, which does not cover unmarried straight partners, has now told us that since we can get married in New York state we must. So the great libertine is going to be brought to the altar soon. Not that I’m opposed. There are many practical benefits, starting with automatic hospital visitation rights granted to a legal spouse and going on to clear inheritance rights and strengthening Michael’s position as my literary executor (I’m in my 70s, 25 years older than he).
But finally there’s a sentimental side. I’ve started looking at him in a different way, knowing that we’ll soon be legally joined together; marriage is such a powerful symbol, it’s bound to affect even such reluctant grooms as us.
Edmund White is an American writer.