New York State has reversed the tide of sexophobic reaction and passed marriage equality for same-sex couples. The triumph was a tribute to the sharp political skills of our new governor (Cuomo) and his enthusiastic support—not just lip service and weasel-words—of the equality issue. It also showed the impact of steady lobbying and persuading work by the gay advocacy groups, which managed to overcome their fractious conflicts of two years ago when the same-sex marriage bill suffered a thumping defeat. A lot of conflicted legislators came around on the issue after hearing stories and anecdotes from articulate spokespeople, many of them directly affected by the legal limbo gay partners face. Mayor Bloomberg’s billions didn’t hurt either.
I also sense that our society has absorbed something about the basic unfairness of treating couples differently and the insidious impact of such discrimination on youth. My own state senator, Dominican-born Adriano Espaillat, explained his Yes vote with reference to the suicide of Tyler Clementi in his district and just a few blocks from where I live, the lad who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his date with a guy was streamed live over the Internet.
Espaillat also noted that his office received over 600 messages of support for the bill and fewer than 100 against it.
Commentators are already declaring the New York action a game-changer because it came about through a legislative act, not a court decision. Although Vermont and New Hampshire were admirably ahead of their time, New York is just a much bigger and more influential state. I can already see the city caterers gearing up to throw Adam and Steve a high-society wedding worthy of being splashed across the gossip magazines.
The emergence of a solid bloc of same-sex marriage states is also a good reminder of what a disaster the Clinton presidency was on the issue. We have good old Bill to thank for signing into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that permits individual states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in others. Clinton ushered into being a permanent dual track of legality in which partners have to consider whether to take a job in Texas or Wisconsin and abandon the protections they enjoy in Boston or D.C.
Clinton could have vetoed that bill and fought against it, but he was more concerned about his political future. Then we all witnessed the presidential election of 2008 in which Joe Biden and Sarah Palin peaceably agreed that marriage should not be extended to same-sex couples.
Obama continues this tradition of catch-up, intoning nice-sounding phrases about non-discrimination while allowing himself to ‘evolve’ on the marriage issue. Luckily for gay and lesbian couples, their organizations did not wait for the passage of geologic time so that Democratic pols could evolve into something more useful. They went about their work and scored impressively.
Thirty years after the New Right turned the horrors of homosexual emancipation into a rallying cry to mobilize Reagan voters and build a Christian base for Republicans, the utility of that enemy is fading away. It’s no accident that abortion and taxes are occupying a more prominent role in the Tea Party universe—even the Bible thumpers aren’t all that convinced that the world will end because a couple of elderly ladies can visit each other in the hospital and gay lovers can stamp on the champagne glass at Fire Island.