When the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its historic ruling on Nov. 18, apparently clearing the way for Massachusetts to become the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage, I immediately felt a sense of elation, because gay Americans had just taken another big step toward equality. First came Lawrence v. Texas, in which Justice Kennedy, appointed by Ronald Reagan, had the temerity to suggest that policemen banging down doors and arresting two men for having consensual sex might be ever so slightly unconstitutional. When the decision came out last June, legal experts predicted that it would finally force American courts to extend the same basic legal protections to homosexual couples that heterosexual partners take for granted. That is exactly what just happened in Massachusetts.
The implications of the Massachusetts case are now reverberating across the country, and in all 50 states gays and lesbians can celebrate how far they have come, even as they heave a collective sigh of exasperation at how long it has taken to get here and how much farther they have to go. And they have good reason to feel frustration.
Before the ink of this incredibly important decision had so much as dried, Republicans were swinging eagerly into action in an equally incredible effort to turn homophobia into an electoral strategy. The Massachusetts Court may have handed gays a big victory, but it also handed the GOP a potent issue which it seems determined to deploy in the 2004 presidential race. According to The New York Times, 59 percent of the American public believes that marriage should remain a bond between a man and a woman — a statistic which continues to astound me, and which should astound anyone who believes in the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. That 59 percent apparently believes that two women walking down an aisle or two men exchanging vows somehow undermines the legitimacy of their own marriage, as if each homosexual wedding will cause a heterosexual couple somewhere to divorce (with a separation rate of nearly 50 percent, heterosexuals seem to be doing fine all on their own). Whatever their reasons, however, 59 percent of the country currently seems disposed to view any pro-gay marriage politician in a negative light.
And the Republican leadership understands this fact all too well. Karl Rove and his gang of strategists are cynically exploiting prejudice and narrow-mindedness based on the cold-blooded calculation that the issue will divide the Democratic Party and mobilize the Christian Right next November. Just as Nixon won over the South by appealing to its racist undercurrents at the time, Bush now hopes to lock down key states by appealing to similar sinister forces. The president has already declared that he will “do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage.” This might include joining conservative Congressional Republicans in pushing for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The sheer stupidity of such an idea is breathtaking. Even if you think homosexuals are an abomination to nature (which means writing off one-tenth of the country, one-fourth of this campus and Dick Cheney’s daughter to boot), the idea of enshrining homophobia right next to the Bill of Rights ought to strike you as a utterly absurd. That our commander in chief would even contemplate supporting it is a national disgrace.
Even if he doesn’t come out in favor of the amendment, Bush will still doubtless use the Massachusetts decision as a wedge issue. A senior aide to one of the Democratic presidential candidates worriedly told the The New York Times on Nov. 19 that “this is going to be an issue next year because Bush wants to make it an issue. I have a feeling this is going to come up again and again.” The aide’s concern reflects a broader fear that the major candidates share; Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, Lieberman, Clark and even Dean, also conscious of the looming 59 percent, all condemn the constitutional amendment but all stop short of outright endorsing gay marriage. Democrats are not going to win national elections until they find the courage to stand by their convictions. The candidates have to show a little spine and support what they all know to be right.
Even more importantly, tolerant Yalies simply don’t have any excuse to vote for Bush. An oft heard refrain here is that “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” These centrist souls readily agree that Bush’s policies on abortion and gay rights are abysmal, but plea that his economic (and military) actions are more important. That logic, if it ever worked, no longer does. Bush is making social policy the issue. You can’t ignore discrimination if it walks up and slaps you in the face. A vote for the Republicans next year will be a vote that “one in four, maybe more” Yalies should remain second class citizens.
Roger Low is a freshman in Branford College.