Queer and Present Danger?

On May 17, gays and lesbians in Massachusetts will gain the right to marry, thanks to a 4-3 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In July, the Democratic presidential nominee, presumably John Kerry of Massachusetts, will triumphantly accept his party's nomination, also in Massachusetts. Seemingly, it would be hard to contrive a better symbol of the Republican claim that Massachusetts, and its favorite son, are outside the national mainstream.

Kerry, traversing a political minefield, says he is for civil unions but not gay marriage. The Massachusetts political establishment, meanwhile, is in an uproar, with the Democratic House speaker and the Republican governor promoting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Because the amendment process in Massachusetts takes a minimum of two years, thousands of gay and lesbian couples could be married in 2004 and ordered unmarried in 2006.

More immediately, the Democratic National Convention could display a sideshow, with gay and lesbian married couples celebrating and demonstrating outside the hall, providing footage for Republican operatives. It's fair to say that Massachusetts' high court, by mandating gay marriage, leapfrogged public opinion, which was barely ready to accept civil union. This won't be the first time that Democrats get caught in the propwash of a divisive reform that eventually becomes broadly accepted. But despite Karl Rove's best efforts, how much of a political disaster for Democrats need this be?

As the rest of this package of articles suggests, liberals and Democrats have actually been making headway on "values" issues. For starters, Democrats since Bill Clinton have succeeded in reminding voters that pocketbook issues are values issues. The opportunities we give our children, how we as a society treat working families, the way we deal with illness, and our treatment of the elderly all reflect values -- and all cut the Democrats' way. The recent bare-breast imbroglio at the Super Bowl served as a reminder that cultural coarseness is brought to you courtesy of the right's cherished free market. Even gay and lesbian rights, perhaps the most divisive of cultural issues, have become as much of a wedge issue for conservatives as for liberals. It is the right, increasingly, that is embarrassed by anti-gay bigotry. And despite the pressure from the Republican Party's fundamentalist base, the Bush administration has hesitated to be overtly anti-gay for fear of offending moderates (and Republican families like the Cheneys).

Kerry's principal opponent, John Edwards, has modeled how to deal with the gay-marriage issue: State your position (Edwards supports domestic-partner benefits), then declare forcefully that the election is not about gay marriage but about George W. Bush's failure to lead on pocketbook and foreign-policy issues.

For Kerry, this balancing act will be harder. The Massachusetts court left no room for a compromise. The only way to make civil unions the law in Massachusetts would be to amend the state's constitution, giving homosexual couples the right to state-approved civil union with all the legal benefits of marriage, but not marriage itself. Gay-rights groups correctly view this as an affront. If there is no practical difference, the only reason for the invidious distinction is to pander to the lingering bigotry of straights.

Yet, ever since Clinton's compromise on gays in the military, most gay and lesbian activists have demonstrated that they are also political realists. They hated the "don't ask, don't tell" gimmick, which required subterfuge and dishonesty, yet recognized Clinton as a friend and ally. Likewise, Howard Dean opposed gay marriage and supported civil unions only because a court ruling forced him to pick one or the other. However, gay activists rallied to Dean as their champion because he represented progress.

If Kerry (or Edwards) declares support for civil unions and insists that the campaign is mainly about other issues, the damage should be containable, and the bigotry of the right could even prove an embarrassment to Bush. Let's be thankful that gays and lesbians appear in the most unlikely of families.

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