Marriage serves as a symbol of denied equality

August 29, 2004|By David J. Garrow

Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today's Debate Over Gay Equality, by George Chauncey (Basic Books: 200 pp., $22)

Why Marriage Matters : America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry by Evan Wolfson (Simon & Schuster: 242 pp., $22)

Gay marriage is one of today's most hotly debated issues. In May, Massachusetts extended the right to marry to lesbians and gay men. This month, a California court voided thousands of gay marriages performed in San Francisco. President Bush is calling for a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to male-female couples. Efforts to add anti-gay provisions to individual state constitutions are moving forward.

Why is gay marriage now a front-page issue, and where did it come from? Right-wing critics blame "activist judges," but the Massachusetts court that mandated marriage equality was directly inspired by last year's historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down the nation's remaining state sodomy statutes and declared that gay Americans cannot be treated as second-class citizens.

Over the last two decades, gays and lesbians have entered the U.S. cultural and civic mainstream. There also has been a remarkable blossoming in scholarship on gay and lesbian history, books that recaptured and brought to light a forgotten American past. One of the most notable was Chauncey's Gay New York, an eye-opening account of how, in the decades before 1930, gay men were openly visible and widely accepted participants in the city's social and cultural life.

Now Chauncey, a University of Chicago historian, turns his expert eye to how the evolution of gay life since then has brought the marriage issue to the fore. Why Marriage? is a short book, but essential in the current public debate.

Only with the onset of the Depression and its effect on men's status as family breadwinners, Chauncey explains, did gays encounter the widespread social ostracism and intense legal persecution that drove them underground into all-but-invisible lives until the late 1960s. "Anti-gay discrimination," he writes, "is a unique and relatively short-lived product."

Fifty years ago, gays "confronted a degree of policing and harassment that is almost unimaginable to us today." Homosexuals faced brutal employment discrimination and endless police hostility. Though the McCarthy era is remembered for the targeting of alleged Communists, far more government employees were fired for being gay.

The severity of that repression, Chauncey says, stimulated the first gay political activists to speak out. Their initial assimilationist agenda, emphasizing that homosexuals were hard-working and patriotic Americans, not child molesters or "security risks," turned into an embrace of gay identity and pride soon after the African-American freedom struggle likewise shifted from an integrationist to a cultural-pride orientation. The "coming out" of hundreds of thousands of gay Americans "normalized" homosexuality, Chauncey says, by "showing outsiders that homosexuals were not so different."

Beginning in the early 1980s, two tidal waves washed over gay America. The AIDS crisis "led to an unprecedented mobilization of gay men." About the same time, with "the astonishingly rapid appearance of what everyone soon called the lesbian baby boom," gay people emerged as two-parent families. "The mass experience of child-rearing and death," Chauncey writes, magnified both gays' visibility in society and their painful interactions with officials."

The greater public presence of gay couples led to increased heterosexual support for gay rights but also to a heightened awareness by these couples that they didn't have "the same recognition, protections, or rights that heterosexual couples took for granted." In the early 1970s, a handful of pioneering gay couples unsuccessfully attempted to secure marriage licenses, but few gay organization pursued marriage prior to the mid-1990s.

Even a decade ago, Chauncey notes, advocating gay marriage was a "distinctly minority position in the lesbian and gay movement." When several Hawaiian couples approached the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1991, Lambda wouldn't take the case.

The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union did file the Hawaii lawsuit. But few gay activists gave it much thought until May 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that banning gay marriage appeared to violate the state's equal rights guarantees.

The Hawaii decision launched Wolfson on a passionate crusade to convince other gay activists that the right to marry should be pursued. Opponents of gay marriage succeeded in amending Hawaii's constitution before the state courts completed their review, but Wolfson's Pied Piper devotedness bore fruit elsewhere, as lawyers filed similar constitutional lawsuits challenging gays' exclusion from marriage in Vermont, then in Massachusetts.

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