It was a June wedding, in the country fashion -- homemade, outdoors, with neighbors from miles around proudly proffering plates brimming with the fruits of their gardens and ovens. The collection of cakes, some homely but most of them exquisite, occupied a table of their own, with a somewhat artless attempt at the classic tiered wedding cake holding court in the center. Crowned with an approximated take on the standard happy-couple cake topper, the confection featured a bride dressed in white -- and another decked out in blue.
That was 11 years ago, and, tasked with finding a bride-and-bride cake decoration for the commitment ceremony of my friends Jackie and Beth, I threw up my hands after walking the length and breadth of Manhattan Island, seeking the illusive tchotchke. So I went to a crafts store in Jersey, bought a couple of doll forms, and made my own damn lesbian brides, smirking all the while at the subversive, voodoo feel of the work.
These days, same-sex cake toppers are easy to find in the coastal cities, especially in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Today marks one year since the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized marriage for the commonwealth's same-sex couples, and that is indeed cause for celebration. Over the course of the last 12 months, more than 5,000 queer couples have tied the knot in the land of Paul Revere, a phenomenon that has conservative legislators there scrambling to pull off a constitutional convention later this year, wherein they hope to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to bar matrimonial rights for couples comprising two men or two women. (No word on where this leaves the transsexuals.)
But if a poll recently commissioned by MassEquality, the Boston-based gay rights organization, holds up, same-sex marriage is likely to prevail, even in the face of hysterical opposition. According to the statewide poll, conducted by Decision Research, of 600 randomly selected registered voters, “[S]upport for marriage equality continues to grow,” with 65 percent supporting same-sex marriage and 35 percent opposing it.
Good news, right? So why do I feel a little sick to my stomach at the thought of it? The answer comes in four little words: Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. Once marriage equality prevails in one state, a constitutional test of DOMA isn't far in the offing.
In 1996, two months before the presidential election, Republican lawmakers, with a healthy helping of Democratic complicity, forced passage of this despicable piece of federal legislation, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. At the time, many liberals felt smug in the almost guaranteed unconstitutionality of the act, and they downplayed the president's signature as a necessary gesture during the reelection battle. Now, with the nuclear option looming in the Senate, odds look less and less good for a judicial rejection of the law.
At a 2004 party fundraiser in Washington, DC, I asked the former president whether Republican efforts to use gay marriage as a wedge issue in the presidential campaign would succeed. He said he didn't think so. After I thanked him and started to pull back, he leaned forward, saying, “[W]hen I signed the Defense of Marriage Act, all it did was to say it's still a question of state law. ... That's the way America's always been. And I think it's a mistake to get into this constitutional amendment business. I don't think it's right.”
Clinton's rendition of the federal law is a study in selective memory. The part he forgot is how the law forbids, at the federal level, same-sex couples from having the same rights as married people. That means no spousal Social Security rights, no protected family leave for taking care of ailing in-laws or the child of one's partner, and numerous other accommodations made for married people. In many cases, it also means higher federal taxes for same-sex couples.
Ironically, the specter of success for gay marriage in Massachusetts may herald doom for its future on the national level, depending on the outlook of the next Supreme Court justice. If DOMA is upheld by the highest court in the land, fundamental equality for us queer folk could be set back 20 or 30 or 50 years. And meanwhile, the future of no less than the entire Bill of Rights, even with its current limitations, is under brutal attack and may not survive.
It all leaves me wondering if we gay people are putting our apples in the right baskets. Yes, I understand, all too well, the necessity of marriage equality. A dear friend of mine -- who gave up a few years of retirement so that he might have a bigger pension with which to support his partner (a poet of negligible means) -- died while on the payroll, leaving his pension in the lap of his employer. The hapless partner never saw a penny of it. Another friend today endures a heartbreaking separation from his great love, a foreign national, because of an expired visa and no way to marry. And yet, if the same people bashing gays succeed in their attacks, especially those on the First and Fourth Amendments, with what tools will we live to fight another day for marriage rights?
Is that the rustling of papers I hear? Come now, you can put away your copy of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. I know that we'll always be told to wait; my lament is, in truth, nothing more than a lament. For no longer do the gay activists who so successfully and brilliantly fight for marriage rights set the agenda, anyway. This one has gotten away from us now and -- short of some unforeseen shattering catastrophe befalling the nation in the coming year -- will no doubt be the big issue for the 2006 midterm elections.
With Congress's newly seized power to trump the courts (via the Terry Schiavo case), my fears about the bench may only amount to a hill of beans. Last summer, in the heat of the presidential campaign, the U.S. House of Representatives “voted to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction over same-sex marriage cases,” in the words of The Washington Post. The U.S. Senate declined to do the same, perhaps feeling a little squirrelly about declaring the Constitution's Article III null and void. But the next time around, who knows? Perhaps the battle, at this uncertain hour, to join in full is not for that which God has joined but for separation -- of powers, that is -- the very essence of the Constitution. Without that, all is lost.
Adele M. Stan has written on religion for Ms., Mother Jones, and The New Republic, and is the author of the blog AddieStan.