News

Will "I dos" end the gay-marriage debate?

Based on a look at the past, social historians predict that after initial resistance, same-sex marriages will eventually gain public acceptance

by

comment

For almost nine years, Valerie and Jacqueline Fein-Zachary have considered themselves married. On Monday, the rabbi who conducted an elegant ceremony for the couple in 1996 will make their status official by signing their marriage license--something he can do now that same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts.

"Finally," says an elated Valerie Fein-Zachary, a physician in Boston, "we're fully equal, fully recognized by the state."

For gays and lesbians across Massachusetts, this dawning of official state recognition of their relationships has produced a week of sheer euphoria. Amid the streamers and confetti, the flowers and well-wishers, it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the status of gay marriage in the state will not be fully settled until voters cast ballots in 2006. It also remains to be seen whether the Massachusetts law will have the domino effect gay-rights advocates hope it will, or whether it will harden resistance of opponents and stir a major backlash.

If U.S. history is any guide, either scenario is possible. History shows that big legal milestones in social movements--from voting rights to interracial marriage to school desegregation to women's rights--often engender resistance, sometimes violent resistance, when they are first enacted. But over time, they do tend to shift the status quo in favor of the minority group, and so, many social historians predict that gay marriage is here to stay.

Legalization of same-sex marriage is a defining moment, and regarded as such by the gay community. But legal experts and activists are thinking beyond the present euphoria to possible ramifications.

Looking back at social movements such as feminism and civil rights, whose progress has been more like the tortoise than the hare, Cheryl Jacques, president of Human Rights Coalition, a gay rights advocacy group, emphasizes the need for time and patience.

"Fifty years after Brown [v. Board of Education], we are still grappling with equal treatment in its true meaning for African-Americans," she says. "Racism didn't go away just because the laws changed, and homophobia won't go away just because the laws change. But it's an important place to start."

Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Houston, cites the legalization of interracial marriage in 1967 as another example of how once-controversial social issues can gain public acceptance.

"To most of my students, it is just inconceivable that there was ever a time when interracial marriages were forbidden," Professor Mintz says. "My suspicion is that in 25 years, gay marriage will be viewed as one of those fundamental turning points in much the same way."

Some activists with long memories trace the beginning of raising public awareness of gays back to June 1969, when five nights of riots involving gay men and police took place outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay gathering place in New York's Greenwich Village. Among other defining moments, they list the 1978 killing of Harvey Milk, a gay city supervisor in San Francisco, and the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager, in Wyoming.

"Each one of those stripped away a layer of denial about whether gay people were truly human, and whether they were worthy," says Gretchen Frasier, president of Greater Boston Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and mother of a gay son. She calls the legalization of same-sex marriage "a baby step in a long line of stepping forward, stepping back."

Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., views same-sex marriage as part of a dramatic redefinition of marriage over the past 30 years that affects both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

She calls this shift, which has taken place over the past 30 years, "only one symptom of a new openness of society to a whole set of untraditional ways of living your life and organizing your obligations to others."

E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For?, expects public disapproval of single-sex marriage to continue to abate. In 2000, 63 percent of Americans disapproved. Last fall, in a Gallup poll, 50 percent said that allowing these unions would have "no effect" on society.

But stigmas persist. After several years in which violence against gays declined nationally, it rose 26 percent in the last half of 2003, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports. Clarence Patton, acting executive director, attributes some of that increase to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last June repealing sodomy laws.

Anecdotal evidence indicates the first quarter of this year appears to have set a record high for crimes against gays, Mr. Patton notes. This period coincides with the heated public discussion of same-sex marriage as a national issue.

"Whenever there's heightened visibility, there's heightened risk for violence," he says.

Some educators report that the widespread publicity about gay marriage has increased name-calling and violence against gay students.

"Kids hear their parents talk at home, whereas before they may never have heard them discuss gay people," says Pam Garramone, director of a PFLAG program in Boston called Safe Schools.

"If they're speaking in a negative way," she adds, "that gives their child license to beat up or make fun of gay youths, or those who are perceived to be gay."

For black gays and lesbians, stigmas exist within their own community, where many remain relatively invisible.

"A lot of African-Americans tend to think that one's gayness supersedes their blackness--that you can't be both," says Jasmyne Cannick of Los Angeles, a spokeswoman for the National Black Justice Coalition. "They think that because I'm a lesbian, I belong in West Hollywood [with whites]."

Before the marriage debate took center stage, she says, black newspapers typically ignored gay and lesbian issues. Now editors are taking notice. So are some black pastors who had previously shunned gays.

Making same-sex marriage legal in Massachusetts is "just the beginning," cautions Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. "There's going to be a long process of thrashing things out, nationally and internationally."

For opponents of gay marriage, Dr. Nussbaum says, it will take more than a court decision to "persuade the unpersuaded" and end stigmatization.

Fein-Zachary, awaiting her marriage license, agrees. "We're all hopeful that our friends and neighbors will understand that this is really about love and commitment and respect for families that are different from each other."

Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage, puts it this way: "It's a new day, but we shouldn't expect too much."

Copyright © 2004 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

Tags

Add a comment

Note: Comments are limited to 200 words.