Confessions of a Moral Coward
I’m going to take a moment to use this space to do something that most readers will probably find somewhat out of character for me: I’m going to say thanks to President Bush. I want to do this because his endorsement of the “Federal Marriage Amendment”, the proposed amendment to the Constitution to forever outlaw gay marriage, has opened my eyes to something I never understood before now: the depths of cowardice, morally speaking, to which I had sunk on this issue before he acted. My thinking on this issue has undergone a transformation over the last few days, and I don’t look back on my old positions with a whole lot of pride.
Up until very recently I was a proponent of allowing civil unions as a way for government to “square the circle”, so to speak, on this difficult issue; to allow gays and lesbians the full legal rights of married couples, without stirring up the prejudices of the bigoted and the unenlightened. It seemed like the ideal compromise solution.
However, as events have developed — as I’ve watched the pictures of happy gay couples getting married in Massachusetts and San Francisco, seen the angry conservative response of the FMA, and heard the words of activists on both sides — I’ve decided that “compromise” isn’t really what civil unions are. No, civil unions aren’t compromise; they are appeasement, casting a whole class of people into a new “separate but equal” category, just to avoid rousing the displeasure of those among us with the least capacity for compassion.
In this sense, the whole thing feels very much to me like the way the North and South approached each other over the issue of slavery. In the early decades of the 1800s, the South wielded considerable political power, and for it slavery was a non-negotiable issue; so the people of the North went out of their way to accommodate the other region’s “peculiar institution”. This went so far as to allow the passage of Fugitive Slave Laws, which bound Northern citizens to return to the South any escaped slaves they found in their states — forcing free-soil Northerners to act, in effect, as unpaid posses for the return of escaped slaves.
In the end, of course, the South pushed too hard, asked too much, and the North’s appetite for appeasement ran out. But it took a good sixty or seventy years, and a lot of compromises, for that to happen. And each compromise asked the people of the North to sell a little more of their souls for the greater good of not offending the delicate sensibilities of the slaveholding South.
In many ways, when it comes to extending civil rights to gays and lesbians, we’re re-enacting that same drama all over again. Let me tell you a story from one act that I happened to have a fairly good seat for. In 1996, I was an intern for a Senator in the Democratic leadership when the odious Defense of Marriage Act came up for its Senate vote.
My boss came from a relatively small and conservative state, and, like many Democrats, DOMA put him in an awkward position. The conventional wisdom was that it was a no-win vote: he was generally sympathetic to gays’ desire for legal recognition for their unions, but if he voted “no” he’d just be giving ammunition to any GOP challenger to use in the next election, while not making much of a difference anyway (since the bill looked likely to pass with or without him). Nobody wanted to be the one Senator to throw himself on his sword just for the privilege of being a Profile in Courage.
So, in the end, my boss went down to the Senate floor and, like most Democrats, voted for DOMA. And it was a pretty damn sad day in our office that day, because just about everybody in there believed that DOMA was a violation of every principle that we stood for. But all the practical folks would tell you that sometimes you have to be willing to swallow your principles in situations like that.
At the time, I accepted that reasoning. Now, though, I don’t. I’m willing to swallow my principles when I think I’m doing some good in return. But what good did that vote for DOMA do? It’s not even ten years later, and now the fundies — the same fundies we were all going out of our way to appease with DOMA — want to take their prejudices and scrawl them into the Constitution. What’s next after that? When do we stop falling back? Why bother with appeasement when it’s not clear the other side can ever really be appeased?
I think of the faces I saw in our office that day, and then I think of the face of a gay friend of mine the day the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down civil unions in favor of marriage, and I can’t stop thinking of the difference. When she came to tell me the news, she so positively radiated hope, possibility, that she seemed the very negation of the spirit I saw in that Senator’s office that day. It was then that I started to realize the full import of what civil unions meant for gays and lesbians, as opposed to marriage — they were, to put it bluntly, an asterisk. A kind of “yes, but” equality. A kind of equality that they had been willing to accept, when nothing else was available; but suddenly the real thing was shimmering on the horizon, beautiful and true, no qualifiers attached, and the shoddiness of the generic alternative was clear for anyone with eyes to see.
So when I talk about moral cowardice, that’s what I’m talking about; for too long I didn’t have the eyes to see that. I thought that the religious implications of “marriage” were enough to justify shunting gays and lesbians off into the “yes, but” asterisk world of civil unions. Now, though — now that the forces of intolerance are on the move again, and we’ve been asked to appease them just one more time, this time they’ll go away if they just get what they want, promise — I’m more inclined to think that if “marriage” has religious implications, then the thing to do is solve that problem.
Easy? No. But I’m tired of easy. Let’s start talking about what’s right for a change.