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Fight for gay rights fits into long history of progressive struggles

The Baltimore Sun

Three years ago my wife and I attended our first - but, I suspect, not last - gay wedding.

Two of our women friends exchanged vows in a most ironic location: a church directly behind the U.S. Supreme Court building. When I consider that Justice Antonin Scalia might have been working that Saturday - his car in the court's underground garage closer to the chapel than the curbside spot three blocks away where we parked - I relax, knowing that gay marriage in some form is here to stay.

The movement for sexual orientation-based equality is part of a proud, progressive tradition that includes abolition, women's suffrage, the ending of child labor, racial integration of the armed forces, the civil rights movement and anti-miscegenation reforms.

Three patterns hallmark this long tradition: a defiant insistence by conservative doom-and-gloomers that the proposed reforms will undermine the fabric of American life; the inevitable rally by progressive and altruistic-minded Americans to the cause of expanding to others the protections they already enjoy; and, finally, widespread agreement a generation or so thereafter that conservative hysteria was not only misplaced, but America was stronger for having ignored their pinched, wrongheaded warnings.

Sure enough, conservatives who bemoan the "radical homosexual agenda" again find themselves losing the debate - not because the homosexual share of the population is growing but because straight Americans are rallying to their defense in the same way whites pushed for abolition and men marched with suffragettes.

According to The Gallup Poll, in 1982 only 32 percent of Americans felt that "homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle." Last month, the figure was 57 percent - an all-time high. It's effectively a gay-straight movement now.

Is this so surprising? After all, heterosexuals not only live near, work alongside, socialize with, and are related to gays and lesbians, they are increasingly aware that they live, work, socialize and are related to gay people.

"Kids grow up today with gay friends, gay parents, gay parents of friends and gay friends of parents," wrote Time columnist Michael Kinsley earlier this month. "If only blacks and whites were as thoroughly mixed together in society as gays and straights are."

Previous generations were not blind, of course. But they were either more oblivious or chose to avoid the reality that some of their neighbors, co-workers, bowling team members and relatives were gay. By outing themselves, gays and lesbians forced the rest of us out of our closet of collective obliviousness.

Last year, in Arizona, for the first time a referendum to ban same-sex marriage narrowly failed. To be fair, many Arizonans who voted against the measure told pollsters that they were upset about the referendum's restrictive provisions for straight, unmarried couples.

But a win is a win. And if heterosexual couples who are unmarried by choice are finding common ground with gay couples who are unmarried by prohibition, well, all the better.

And what, exactly, is required of heterosexual couples wanting to marry? As journalist Jonathan Rauch notes in his new book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, not much.

So long as two people are adults, not close blood relatives, consenting and not already married, almost any man and woman can marry. If they are infertile, just met the night before at a Las Vegas strip club, or have had a dozen previous failed marriages between them, they can wed. Even convicted felons "on their way to the chair" can marry, scoffs Mr. Rauch.

"Within those rules, a marriage is whatever spouses agree it is," writes Mr. Rauch. "So the laws say almost nothing about what marriage is for: just who can be married."

Herein lies an absurd double-standard: Noncohabitating spouses who neither love nor remain faithful to each other, and who may not want children, enjoy greater status than two men who truly love each other and hope to spend their lives together raising adopted children who otherwise might be orphaned.

The only thing more ridiculous would be the U.S. military deciding it was less important in this post-Sept. 11 era to have sufficient Arabic translators in our military than to banish them because they're gay. Oh, wait ...

Thomas F. Schaller's column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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