Last week, the future of our nation was decided not upon the merits of its foreign policy, or its tax policy, or its trade policy, or any other subject worthy of so rational a word. Our future was determined by the triumph of Unreason, the negation of the Enlightenment that inspired the country’s founding. We are no longer a social contract or consensus of principles, but merely a tribe huddled around a totem, terrified of the darkness that lies beyond the campfire’s embers.
That was the conclusion drawn by horrified liberal intellectuals in the days following the election, as the initial spin credited Karl Rove with using the prospect of gay marriage to draw millions of evangelical Christians to the polls. And it’s true to some extent; according to national exit polls published in The New York Times this Sunday, George W. Bush increased his share of the white Protestant vote from 63 to 67 percent, as well as marginally improving on his share of voters who attend church at least once a week.
Evangelicals have no problem congratulating themselves for granting Bush another four years. Take Grace, the woman who called the NPR show Talk of the Nation last week to discuss gay marriage. “I’m a first-time voter for the first time in thirty years,” she said. “In Louisiana, we had the amendment for — toward marriage that we had in September, and I registered to vote specifically for that issue. … Most Christians in this nation trust that God chooses the kings, and that means the president.” (To think that the nation might be in the hands of such people, of whom H.L. Mencken once wrote, “Divine inspiration is as common as the hookworm.”)
But what seems to have truly doomed John Kerry is even less encouraging. Not only did George Bush get out his core voters, a substantial portion of John Kerry’s base — urban voters — actually defected to the other side. Again according to exit polls, the Democratic candidate’s share of the vote in cities with more than 500,000 residents dropped from 71 percent in 2000 to 60 percent this year. In midsize cities such as Oakland, Fremont, or Concord, the Democrat’s share dropped from 57 percent to 49 percent. This is bad news for the left, not only because it defies easy analysis (Did big, red-leaning cities like Houston get bigger? Has outsourcing so killed the labor movement? Was John Kerry’s “elite” persona really that lethal?), but because it erodes the only consolation liberals have left — the satisfaction of being furious at people such as Grace.
But this data may prove doubly painful to the roughly four thousand married gay couples in the Bay Area, who have had to shoulder much of the blame for last week’s demoralizing loss. Armed with hindsight’s clarity, Democrats have begun indulging their favorite pastime of recrimination, bludgeoning San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for luring Leviticus-lovin’ Christian fanatics out of their caves. Newsom’s gay-marriage gambit may have been self-interested calculation, but for thousands of gay men and women, getting married in February was both a political act and an unexpectedly intimate, transformative event — perhaps the most emotional moment in their adult lives. Nine months later, they have none of the legal rights they demanded. Indeed, civil unions were abolished in eight states by voters who probably wouldn’t have bothered if gay and lesbian couples hadn’t first taken those vows on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Straight liberals are looking in their direction, wondering if these adventures in matrimony doomed the nation to war and recession. All these couples have to sustain them is that one moment when they declared their love, and the rest of the Bay Area replied that their love was real.
Is that enough? Or do they think privately that, given the national spasm of bigotry that ensued, the most significant event in their lives was a mistake?
If anything underscores the unique pain that gay married couples must feel this week, it’s that almost all the ones contacted for this story denied the obvious fact that old-fashioned homophobia strongly motivated so many Bush voters. They point to Osama bin Laden’s video or the Swift Boat veterans, or claim that Karl Rove would have found some other wedge issue with which to motivate reactionaries. “Would I give it up to have Kerry in the White House?” asks Jane Fletcher, a married lesbian who lives in Northern California. “Yes. But that wouldn’t have done it. … I don’t think it’s a question of being married or having Kerry in the White House. I still don’t think that would have made a difference.”
Maybe, despite years of enduring homophobia, it’s still too hard to acknowledge the visceral repudiation of their lives on display last week. Among those interviewed, only Mary Beth Hight, who was in a steady relationship for eight years before getting married in February, spoke openly about the intensity of the voters’ hatred, although she too downplayed its role. “Those people will never accept us,” she says. “I was raised in one of those fundamentalist Christian communities, and they’re fed little soundbites. They’re not encouraged to think or be logical — they’re certainly not encouraged to think about who lesbians and gays are. They want everyone to be like them. They’re frightened by us. I think they’re afraid we’ll show them up. There’s a 50 percent divorce rate, after all.”
Gay couples are considerably more willing to confront the rising ill feelings among their straight liberal friends. When Dianne Feinstein declared last week that Newsom’s weddings pushed the issue “too much, too fast, too soon,” gay couples around the Bay Area reacted with dismay. Not only did DiFi appear to blame them for last week’s disaster, they claimed, but the statement was predicated on the notion that their civil rights are optional, an inconvenient sideshow in the Democrats’ Big Tent. “For anyone to point a finger at Gavin Newsom, shame on them,” says Jeanne Rizzo, who was all set to marry her partner when the state Supreme Court finally ended the mayor’s efforts. “It’s never a good time for civil rights. It’s never a good time to sit in the front of the bus. The black churches weren’t ready for that, the NAACP wasn’t ready for that. It’s never a good time.”
But despite the leaden shock of the last few days, every gay person interviewed but one said they would proudly do it all over again. Despite the existential insult they suffered, the message that they are only three-fifths human, they all said it was worth it. A lesbian friend of mine put it this way. Humans are pack animals, she said, and the need to belong to the pride is written in our genetic code. Gays and lesbians have spent decades redefining notions of family and community, crafting an identity to make up for the exile of their lives, but that need to belong never quite goes away. When Newsom offered this fleeting chance to join the pride, they remembered how much they craved it, and the elation they felt when they came in from the cold changed their lives forever.
“When you get a domestic partnership, nobody congratulates you,” says Stuart Gassney, who had been with his partner for seventeen years before getting married. “We didn’t know the shame and inequality we’d been living with until we were welcomed into City Hall as equal human beings. … So much was going on while we exchanged vows, I can’t express it all. But part of it was shedding a lifetime of shame and stepping out of it for the first time.”
Jim Martin has lived with his partner for more than twenty years. He never exactly hid it from his mother, but no one in the family acknowledged it either, especially after his father died. “When he passed away, I felt this need to take care of her, to help her through that time and assume some of his responsibilities,” Martin recalls. “Over time, part of that was to not rock the boat. So yes, I brought my gay partner with me, and she knew him and liked him, but I never got into details about my personal life. I just low-keyed it.” However, all that changed when they got married, and Martin’s mother was finally forced to admit that yes, her son was gay. “Her opinion was, why didn’t you just keep things the way it was?,” he says. “The fact that we went to City Hall and got married, it upset her sense of propriety. But I realized those conflicts had to happen anyway. There were some conflicts that I had with her that I hadn’t addressed, and this brought them to the fore. … It forced me to be more myself with her, and not just be the dutiful son. Since then, I have been more myself around her.”
It’s been a painful few months for Martin; the fights with his mother were awkward and strained, as they had to learn the lingua franca of emotional honesty. But that time has more or less passed, and their relationship is entering a new, more mature chapter. “It’s stronger because I’m stronger,” he says. “I don’t regret doing it, and I don’t apologize to anyone for doing it.”
So roughly four thousand not-quite-married couples take comfort in those memories, and in one other notion. Even though the words are sharp, they tell themselves, this is still a conversation. Any dialogue is preferable to the cold silence of the past, and sooner or later, they’ll be sufficiently humanized in the eyes of the country to take their place in the world of full citizens. But for all the talk of Mary Cheney, there was no dialogue this election, just poisonous sermons from the pulpits. And under W’s second term, the social polarization will only get worse.
Over the last forty years, Americans have sped up the process of cultural self-segregation, settling in uniformly liberal enclaves such as Oakland or conservative exurbs such as Colorado Springs. Now that gay and lesbian couples have lost their chance for civil unions in states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, they have more incentive than ever to leave for friendlier climates. If a Bush-packed Supreme Court removes the federal right to abortion, women for whom the act isn’t murder will move to states that allow it. The long process of mutual disengagement will accelerate, and the points of contact between the nation’s two tribes will dwindle away. Liberals won’t move to Canada. But they willmove to Seattle, and in increasing numbers, until one day we really will need a translator to speak to one another, and UN peacekeepers patrol the demilitarized zones between Washington and Idaho, Virginia and Maryland, Nevada and California. But at least for one brief moment in 2004, we formally noticed that gay couples have dignity.