Right after Californians banned same-sex marriage by passing Proposition 8, NPR aired a segment exploring how people felt about the outcome. One man who voted against gay marriage was already reconsidering. “I don’t know why I oppose it,” he sighed. “I guess I’m just not there yet.”
Now that federal Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, I wonder how far the ambivalent man on NPR has traveled in the last two years. Is he there yet?
I, too, was slow to arrive. The gay-rights movement was not on my radar screen until I was in college, in the ’70s. Even then, it was barely a blip. I thought I was standing up for my friends against rumors that they were gay by saying, “No, they’re not.” I lacked the courage to respond, or even to know, “So what if they are?”
I still recall a campus-wide call to wear blue jeans in support of gay rights. I wish I could say I donned my Levi’s without a second thought, but instead I chose corduroys. I was afraid people might think I was gay. When Charlie, my favorite TA, wore blue jeans, I didn’t know what to believe anymore.
The boys across the hall, the friends I had so vehemently “defended,” dared not wear blue jeans either that day. I did not then imagine what it must have taken for Jeff, Greg, and Matt to rummage through their closets for a suitable disguise.
After we graduated, I moved to the Bay Area. So did Jeff and Greg, who came out in the embracing atmosphere of San Francisco. Matt went home to the Midwest and married his high school sweetheart. Over beers one evening, Jeff and Greg told me Matt’s wife had divorced him when she’d discovered his secret passion for men. I wondered about the heartache Matt and his bride might have been spared if he had not been forced to live in the closet.
Over time, I realized that I knew plenty of gay people, and that their sexual orientation didn’t matter to me. Jeff, Greg, and Matt were still the same friends with whom I’d shared tears and gossip during all-nighters in the dorm. The two moms who lived across the street chased after their toddlers just like my husband and I chased after ours. The nice men down the block brought us tomatoes from their garden every summer, until they got sick and died from the mysterious illness ravaging young men in their prime.
The kids, the tomatoes, the sting of grief prove the commonality of love and despair. It’s this stuff of everyday life that wins hearts and minds. The law alone cannot compel public opinion, although it both shapes and reflects it. Yet the law has the unique power to persuade through its insistence on justice. That’s why it mattered so much when the California Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to ban gay marriage; our shared humanity was affirmed through the authority of law.
In the euphoric aftermath of that landmark decision, my friends Ann and Joan got married. The brides were radiant in their silk tunics, silvery hair, and sensible shoes. After waiting seventeen years to walk down the aisle, they’d earned their comfort. We all cheered and wept as Joan said, “This is something we never dreamed would happen. We never imagined that we could get dishtowels and kitchen gadgets, like everybody else.”
Just months later, that dream was snatched away from other gay couples hoping to wed when voters amended the California constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.
My friend Martha confided her ambivalence about gay marriage, but voted for it. She knew that her personal discomfort was no excuse for discrimination.
Two years later, Judge Walker reached the same conclusion as Martha: it’s wrong to deny a whole class of people the protection of equal rights under the law because of personal discomfort.
Judge Walker released his ruling just as Hollywood released a new mainstream movie, The Kids Are All Right. The film depicts an average family as the oldest child is about to leave home. The family just happens to consist of two moms and their teenage kids. The interloping sperm donor lights a match to the household’s tinderbox of midlife and teenage angst, but ultimately, his biological and emotional claims amount to nothing. “If you want a family so bad, go make your own,” one of the moms blasts Bio Dad. He is literally left outside in the cold, looking in at the hearth and home he wants but cannot have.
The film refutes the argument that gay marriage harms children. Its title and its many scenes around the family dinner table underscore that these are well-adjusted kids lovingly raised by two parents. Sexual orientation is largely irrelevant because it has nothing to do with love, marriage, and family. That’s the point of the movie.
It’s the point of Judge Walker’s Prop 8 ruling as well.
Whether the Supreme Court lets his decision stand or puts the kibosh on same-sex marriage for now, it’s only a matter of time before demographics guarantee equality. In California, a recent Field Poll reveals that 68 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds support gay marriage. National polls show the same trend. The kids really are all right, and they’ll make sure that someday, same-sex marriage will be as ordinary as blue jeans.
Then we’ll be there at last.