by Doug Ireland
August 7, 2003
When The New York Times ran an analysis story several days after President Bush jumped with both boots onto the gay marriage issue, this was the lead:
"The amazing thing, gay Republicans said, was that President Bush was not even asked about gay marriage at a Rose Garden news conference on Wednesday. But he plowed ahead and offered his opinion anyway -- he's against it."
Well, only an ostrich should have been surprised by Bush's decision to make political capital out of the gay marriage issue. Just two days before Bush's biblically-framed pronouncements categorizing gays as "sinners," a Gallup poll had shown a dramatic "backlash" (as poll director Frank Newport characterized it) against gays in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision striking down all laws prohibiting sex between consenting adults of the same gender -- the so-called sodomy laws.
Not only did support for same-sex civil unions drop from 49 percent in May to 40 percent, those saying "homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle" slalomed from 54 percent to 46 percent -- and, even worse, a comfortable 60 percent majority favoring the legalization of same-sex relations plummeted to 48 percent after the Court's decision. Among blacks, the drop on legalizing gay sex was even sharper: 23 points. (A New York Times poll released August 3 tended to confirm the backlash Gallup found, especially among blacks and Hispanics, with strong majorities opposing gay marriage -- 65 to 28 for blacks, 54 to 40 for Hispanics).
The Bush White House is even more poll-driven than Bill Clinton's was, and Karl Rove's opinion-watchers were telling him about the backlash before Gallup did. That was the meaning of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's declaration on Meet the Press the month before that he would "absolutely" support a constitutional ban on marriage for same-sex couples, which Newsweek's Howard Fineman reported at the time was made with "no-fingerprints support from the White House.''
Since then, the GOP's plan to use gay marriage as a wedge issue against the Democrats has become unmistakable. The Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by Arizona's Jon Kyl, issued a 12-page July 29 policy paper declaring gay marriage a "threat" that must be dealt with by the Senate, and providing a political roadmap -- reeking of homophobia -- of how to do it. And the Associated Press reported on August 1 that a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by John Cornyn of Texas will take up gay marriage after the August recess; Cornyn thundered that "we must take care to do whatever it takes" to stop it.
Pushing the anti-gay hot button reflects Republican electoral strategy. Bush must hold and energize his base -- the 13 states whose sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme court were all states that Bush carried in 2000. There are only some 40 Congressional districts considered "marginal" -- in other words, that's the tiny number of swing House seats in which the election of one major party's candidate is not already a foregone conclusion. And those districts are not in more gay-friendly urban areas, but in rural-suburban districts where Republicans expect the gay marriage issue to cut against Democrats. A lot of those districts are in the Bible Belt. Most of the Senate seats that are open (or expected to be) or marginal are on similar turf: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois (where the urban areas are heavily devout Catholic and half the state is rural) and Alaska. And the high negatives for gay marriage among blacks also play into Bush and the GOP's Southern/Heartland strategy. That's why Rove has made no secret of his preference for Howard Dean as the Democratic nominee -- the White House believes Dean's national identification with Vermont's civil unions for gays makes him easily beatable.
The new embrace of overt gay-bashing reflects the fact that two lawsuits by same-sex couple demanding the right to marry -- one in New Jersey, one in Massachusetts -- have been making their way through the courts. The Massachusetts case will be decided by the Bay State's Supreme Court this summer, and has a significant chance of success for the plaintiffs. As an article by Mary Bonauto in the American Bar Association's Human Rights Magazine Summer 2003 special issue on gay rights points out, "the current litigation demonstrates just how little the states have to rely upon in continuing to exclude same-sex couples from marriage." Their principle argument, as Bonauto notes, is:
[P]rocreation, i.e., the begetting of children through a particular sexual act, as the raison d'etre of marriage to justify the [plaintiff] couples' exclusion from marriage. Like all other states, Massachusetts allows infertile and aged individuals to marry and remain married. In law and culture alike, marriage is about the love and commitment of the couple regardless of procreative capacity or intent. The state advanced child rearing as a justification, too, but reality and science land squarely on the plaintiffs' side. Children raised by gay and lesbian parents would benefit if their parents could marry, just as children in other families do. Moreover, child-rearing experts in the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association insist that the love and commitment of two parents is most critical for children -- not the parents' sex or sexual orientation. Among other things, they reassuringly point to 35 years of studies showing that children of gay and lesbian parents are normal and healthy on every measure of child development.
Bush got help from the Vatican when the Pope issued his edict demanding that Catholic politicians oppose not only gay marriage, but civil unions as a first step towards it. Denouncing the Church's political interference as "unwarranted" in an editorial, The Boston Globe also nailed the Vatican's kids-based argument when it said:
Particularly galling is the language [in the Vatican decree] regarding the adoption of children by gay people, which is already permitted in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The document declares that allowing such adoptions "would actually mean doing violence to these children" because they would be raised in an environment of "deviant behavior."
When it comes to doing violence to children, it seems obvious that the church has lost its moral authority, since it ignored, condoned and covered up a generation of sexual assault -- which was not consensual and not loving -- of children by American parish priests.
Just as the Pope's gay marriage denunciation and his trumpeting that homosexuality is "immoral" are designed to distract attention from the Church's pedophile scandals, Bush's announcement that he's assigned lawyers to figure out how to stop gay marriage is meant to take the play away from the daily Iraq body count of U.S. soldiers killed, the sputtering economy, the North Korea mess and other issues that have eroded his standing in the polls. It may work.
Furthermore, gay liberationist critics of the institutional gay movement's marriage obsession worry that another result of the issue's dominating the national discourse course on gays is that little public space or critical mass will be left to push ahead on other issues of equal or greater importance. As Michael Bronski, author of The Pleasure Principle, wrote in a thoughtful and important article in The Boston Phoenix:
We can't even pass a federal nondiscrimination bill, much less make the streets safe for transgender kids who are being murdered in their own neighborhoods. So much energy is being expended on marriage that we might not have the resources to fight for other issues in the future, both near and far. It is tempting for social movements to become consumed by their own obsessions. The early women's movement focused entirely, fetishistically, on suffrage for nearly 70 years. When that battle was finally won, the movement nearly died and -- despite so much more to be accomplished -- did almost nothing until the late 1960s. Could this happen to the gay-rights movement?
Finally, after every great national debate on gays -- like the one over gays in the military and "don't ask, don't tell" -- when the bigots and the advocates of the moral order are in full-throated cry against the queers, there has been a significant rise in incidents of violent gay-bashing, as homo-hating primitives (usually young) hear confirmation of their prejudices leaking from their TV screens. A new wave of physical attacks on gays is probably in the offing.
Bush's decision to surf on the new anti-gay backlash is thus likely to have a number of dark and nefarious negative consequences beyond the 2004 election cycle -- ones which the national media have so far ignored.
Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator. This article first appeared in Tom Paine.com (www.tompaine.com)