Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gay Marriage and Matters of the Heart

When he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill liked to say that all politics is local. But some of it, he might have added, is also relational.

As in to whom you’re related, by blood or love.

I try to be a tolerant guy. But I used to be against gay marriage.

Civil unions were sufficient to guarantee effective equality for gay men and women, as I saw it. Having been married for a long time, I wanted to see something reserved for that special bond for men and women.

Then Dan and Clara fell in love.

Not without each other, though. With their same-sex partners.

Clara is my niece. Dan is one of my closest friends. She’s an 18-year-old college freshman in New York. He’s a 56-year-old executive at a nonprofit in San Francisco. While they are separated by decades and a continent, for me their stories –and what they say about gay marriage – come down to the same thing.

Clara announced that she was gay three years ago, less than halfway through high school. Her parents didn’t make much of a fuss about it, wondering if this was a phase that she’d grow out of, or if she was just intimidated by boys. And if she was in fact gay by nature, that was OK, too.
Rather than growing out of it, Clara comfortably assumed the role. Her family and friends embraced it, too.

Not that it matters much, but you’d never know Clara was gay if you met her. Artsy, yes, but otherwise a typical female college freshman. Headed in six directions at once, full of the enthusiasms that are so refreshing in someone whose world is widening by the day.

Dan’s story is different in the details. He had girlfriends in high school and college, where we became friends when we met at a draft-counseling session. He married in his late 20s and had two beautiful girls.

After nearly 20 years, that marriage ended in a divorce initiated by his wife. Shocked by her desire to break up a marriage and family that he so deeply valued, Dan eventually found his bearings and went on with his life.

And then he came to realize something about himself. Traversing the sexual spectrum that can span broadly even within one man’s life, he reached the point where he wanted to start dating men.

Dan comes from a large Irish Catholic family. The men are jocks and achievers, sometimes hard drinkers but always ambitious. And until Dan came along, so far as he knew they were always straight.

Watching him come out of the closet, first to close friends such as myself and then to other friends and to his disapproving family, was to follow the most courageous journey I’ve ever personally observed.

A few friends shunned him. His family was disbelieving. More than a decade later, some family members still make it clear to him that they disapprove of his “lifestyle.”

Those of us who’ve known Dan since college, who attended his wedding or knew how happy he was as a married man, were surprised by his coming out. But we knew we loved the guy. And we figured it was his business whom he slept with. If it made him happy to live life as a gay man, more power to him.

Besides, it brought out in him an inner strength, an integrity, a belief in personal growth, that were contagious. Spending time with Dan, you can’t help but be touched by his insight and inner comfort with who he knows he is, in his heart of hearts.

Even so, it’s only recently that I’ve come to support gay marriage. As with so much else, love brought me around.

Not just loving Clara and Dan, but seeing what loving their gay partners did for them.
Last fall shortly after she enrolled at Sarah Lawrence -- which must be the gayest college on the planet -- Clara announced she had a girlfriend.

I’ve yet to meet that young lady. But when Clara talks about her, she has the same goofy, dreamy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-so-lucky look on her face that I had, nearly 40 years ago, when I talked about my college girlfriend.

Last year, after years of looking, Dan met his new mate. Like Dan, his boyfriend has worked in the business world, had a wife and kids, and came out only in his 40s. There’s a photo in my office that I took of the two of them, sitting close on the couch in Dan’s San Francisco apartment.

Even on the hardest of days, it always warms my heart to look at that photo.
I’m certainly not alone in knowing and loving friends and family who happen to be gay. The world is changing, as more gay men and lesbians have the courage to come out of the closet. Their courage is in turn awakening the rest of us to the fact that we know many gays in our daily lives, and that they’re not that different from straight people.

In the long run, legalizing gay marriage – and not having it be that big a deal – seems inevitable. One day soon, the nearly universal ban that makes second-class citizens of gays who want to marry will come to seem as cruel and outdated as Indian castes and American racism.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions. The battle split the state between opponents who wanted to take back Vermont and those who wanted to take Vermont forward. In the battle’s wake, Democrats who had supported civil unions lost control of the Legislature.

But none of the dire warnings from opponents came to pass – that Vermont was “redefining marriage” to make it meaningless, or that we would experience the wrath of God, a decline in the state’s moral fiber, and thousands of gay people overrunning the state when they came here to be civilly united.

Now Vermont’s Democrats are back in power in the Legislature, stronger than ever. Fifty-nine legislators – but no Republicans -- have signed on as sponsors of the bill by Reps. Mark Larson and David Zuckerman to legalize gay marriage in Vermont. If the bill survives to become law, Vermont will become the first state to legalize gay marriage not by virtue of a court action, but through legislation.

Even Patti Komline, the House Republican leader, has said she’ll vote for the bill.

But as with so much else in this state, Gov. Jim Douglas may stand in the way. Douglas, a Middlebury resident, has said he opposes the bill. And of course he has the power to veto it.

Here in Addison County, Rep. Bill Lippert of Hinesburg, the state’s first openly gay legislator, helped shape the civil union bill. Middlebury attorney Beth Robinson heads the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task force and blogs regularly on the subject at www.vtfreetomarry.org. Among the recent contributors to this newspaper’s letters to the editor section was Rebecca Kneale Gould, a Monkton resident and Middlebury College faculty member who wrote in support of the legislation.

In New Haven recently, one of the town’s well established churches went through the experience of hiring a lesbian pastor. A few members objected. But so far as is known, God’s grace continues to shine on the church.

There are many good reasons, having to do with public policy and history, to support gay marriage. We are, after all, a nation founded on equal rights and “under God.”

The latter’s Christian followers have a saying about doing unto others as you would have others do unto you. How would opponents of gay marriage like it if, for instance, someone tried to pass a law banning them from getting married?

As TV commentator Keith Olbermann reminds us, there has already been plenty of “redefining marriage” in our history. If that hadn’t happened, black people still couldn’t marry white people.
As recently as 1967, the marriage of President Obama’s parents would have been illegal in 16 states.

The onging battle for gay marriage is in part a political and moral one. But it’s also one of the heart. It comes down to love.

My niece and my dear friend should be able to love and marry the people they choose, whatever their gender.

In his “live and let live” entreaty to the opponents of gay marriage, Olbermann had this to say:
“You are asked now, by your country and perhaps your creator, to stand on one side or another. You are asked now to stand, not on a question of politics, not on a question of religion, not on a question of gay or straight. You are asked now to stand on a question of love. All you need to do is stand, and let the tiny ember of love meet its own fate. You don’t have to help it, you don’t have to applaud it, you don’t have to fight for it. Just don’t put it out.”

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