By Jeff Epperly
In the Nov. 21 San Francisco Chronicle, Susan P. Kennedy, former Cabinet secretary for Gov. Gray Davis and former executive director of the California Democratic Party, argues that it is politically immature for gays to seek same-sex marriage when it is clear that it is opposed overwhelmingly by the public.
She wrote: “A belief in the bedrock principle of equality and civil rights is what binds the gay community to the Democratic Party. If we dismiss the progress that we’ve made, lash out at our friends and push forward with ill-timed legislation on marriage regardless of the consequences, we become our own Ralph Nader.”
Yes, because someone who worked for Gray Davis ought to be lecturing the rest of us on how to read political tea leaves.
It’s clear that these are not friendly times for same-sex marriage. Although “moral values” have been overplayed as a factor in the last election, the GOP tactic of using same-sex marriage to get out the vote was successful in some areas.
But there is never going to be a “good” time to bring gay marriage to the forefront because the religious Right is fueled by fear and hatred, not reason, and fear and hatred are never defeated by retreat. The GOP has learned that being unprincipled pays off, and it cares little whether we play by the rules. There might be a somewhat better time years down the road to pursue our goals, but never a good time. History shows us that civil rights progress is always controversial and a losing proposition in the popular mindset when it is first introduced.
I spent many years working in the gay press. And the stories of those people who lost their homes when a partner died, or who could not see a dying partner in the hospital, have been numerous and heart-wrenching. If those stories involved anyone but same-sex couples, the public would be outraged. Yet, bigotry plain and simple makes it OK to talk about a full-scale abandonment of simple principles of fairness and equality?
Are there places where it might make strategic sense to hold off on gay marriage? Yes, but the withdrawal should be done through a sense of political logic, not because of fear or intimidation. I’d rather lose on principle than have nothing at all by hiding in the shadows. And the current political climate in our red states should prove to gay men and lesbians everywhere that silence buys us little except shame and defeat.
There are many reasons why the Massachusetts electorate and political structure are where they are on lesbian, bisexual and gay rights. But the chief reasons are that gay men, lesbians and bisexuals have been on the ramparts for decades, long before gay pride marches and groups were common. Our activists were out fighting when it was perfectly legal to fire them for being gay; when cops still staged shake-downs in gay bars. They were on the streets when you were likely to be attacked or spat upon for carrying a sign identifying you as a homosexual. They did it not just in Boston and Provincetown, but also in smaller towns and cities in the state.
Back then there were also voices saying, “You want too much too soon! Back off!”
Thankfully, those voices were ignored because there is never as “good” a time to confront inequality as the present. If same-sex marriages go to a statewide vote in Massachusetts, polls indicate they would be approved by the voters. That didn’t come about because we decided to be good little gays who waited for equality to be popular. We started demanding it when demanding it meant taking on the all the Republicans and nearly every Democrat in the State House. We lost a lot. Then we lost less. Now we don’t lose so much.
Of course there are local political considerations in every state and county that make each fight unique. I accept that. But if you live in a state that has banned gay marriage or outside a gay-friendly metropolitan area, there are lessons to be learned from Massachusetts, formerly one of the most conservatively Catholic states in the nation on gay civil rights. None of those lessons involve giving up or giving in.