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An Outsider Steps In and Changes the Script

We've seen it before: Social movements have an untidy logic that defies control.

March 14, 2004|E.J. Graff | E.J. Graff is the author of "What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution." She is a visiting scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center.

BOSTON — In the weeks before Valentine's Day, San Francisco lesbian and gay activists didn't expect that the city's wedding bells would be ringing for them any time soon. In fact, like other freedom-to-marry groups around the country, Marriage Equality California was planning its fifth annual "Standing Up By Getting Turned Down" rally, in which, on Feb. 12, same-sex couples would apply for marriage licenses and then stage a protest when they were turned down.

Instead, Feb. 5, Mayor Gavin Newsom's political aides started placing calls to the city's lesbian and gay rights leaders. Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, returned a phone call from her car and was told by a Newsom aide that this year the new mayor was going to issue the requested licenses. "My first reaction was stunned disbelief," she recalls.

Kendell asked for some time to confer with same-sex marriage movement leaders around the state and country about whether the timing was right for such a move. But the aide made it clear that the mayor was not asking for permission, that this was a courtesy call. Kendell and others quickly grasped that, to stop those licenses, they would have to proffer "some huge, very compelling, precisely articulated objection. We really didn't have that kind of objection. And I, for one, didn't have the stomach to talk him out of it."

It sometimes happens this way. A social movement makes its plans, hold its rallies, introduces legislative proposals, brings its meticulously planned court cases, issues press releases and argues its position in endless briefs and talk shows, books and articles. Then an outsider steps in and -- for his own reasons -- changes the script, and by doing so turns up the debate's volume dramatically. For lesbians and gay men, this scenario is reminiscent of the breathtaking year that ran between June 1992 and June 1993, when Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton started openly courting our votes and donations, declaring ours a just cause -- and in doing so pushed us into the mainstream media spotlight.

Clinton, of course, made some missteps: Any experienced gay activist could have told him that military service was too volatile an issue to start with. But even though the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy ultimately implemented wasn't an improvement -- it resulted in more discharges (especially of lesbians) than the policy of uneasy coexistence that preceded it -- Clinton's push dramatically improved the political climate for lesbians and gay men.

In retrospect, June 1992 to June 1993 was an annus mirabilis, the first political Year of the Homosexual. Never before had lesbian and gay rights been treated as public-policy issues deserving serious political consideration. Now -- consolidated in everything from the sweep of workplace domestic partnership policies to pop culture phenoms like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye" -- that attitude is impossible to roll back.

Will Newsom's gambit trigger the same kind of cultural shift? Despite the California Supreme Court's order last week to stop San Francisco from issuing any more licenses, it surely looks as if that's what's happening. Before Newsom's Winter of Love, the same-sex marriage debate was about abstractions. On the one hand, same-sex couples and their lawyers were begging to be let into the institution; on the other, anti-gay forces were insisting that doing so would end civilization. Natural human caution put the burden of proof on the potential newcomers.

But now every American with a television has seen hundreds of boringly ordinary couples -- often with strollers, flowers, parents, siblings and old friends in tow -- waiting giddily in the rain for their public moment of joy and civil recognition. Who knew, besides a few lesbian and gay activists, that thousands of such people had been waiting 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years to pay $82 for a license to take care of each other for the rest of their lives?

Opponents now have to play their part on a very different political reality show: Who Wants to Unmarry the Neighbors? As a result, the burden of proof has shifted to them. Most of the political humor I've seen, from editorial cartoons to Comedy Central jokes, has poked fun at same-sex marriage's opponents (my personal favorite is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoon in which a cave full of Al Qaeda operatives declare that they know how to destroy America: Sneak in and marry each other!). I've seen very few sneers about men in wedding dresses, the denigrating joke that would have been de rigueur just 10 years ago.

What's more, just as Clinton forced reluctant straight politicians and pundits to talk about the rights of individual lesbians and gay men, Newsom is forcing those same politicians and pundits to talk about how government should treat two women or two men in love.

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