March 27, 2013

Did you hear that Dick Cheney came out for universal health-care coverage after his uninsured daughter went bankrupt because she fell expensively ill?

Or that Sen. Rob Portman just proposed a big new program to guarantee great teachers for every child after finding out that his son had awful, untrained professors at Yale?

I’ve been thinking about the amazing pace of change in public attitudes and political sentiment on gay marriage — and how every Tom, Dick and Harry (or at least every Hillary, Mark and Claire) seems to be rushing out a video or press release getting on the new right side of marriage equality.

As a Jew at this season, I can’t help asking a variant of the eternal Passover query: Why is this issue different from all other progressive issues? Why has this one moved so quickly?

There are surely plenty of reasons, but the one that gets little attention is class.

It’s obvious but still bears underlining: When every economic and social class shares in the experience of injustice or intolerable wrongs, things change faster. If only poor people were gay, does anyone think our political leaders would have “evolved” at this pace? Likewise, if we had a draft, does anyone think our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have proceeded as they did?

Today we all have friends, colleagues and relatives who are gay. That’s the way societies change. The moral circle widens. The boundaries of empathy expand. This was the genius of the strategy in Harvey Milk’s passionate refrain on Gay Freedom Day almost 35 years ago: “Come out . . . come out . . . come out.” Despite the pain and risk, Milk knew that once enough gay men and women found the courage to stand up, it would became impossible to sustain bigotry or defend discrimination.

I never thought most Americans would support gay marriage before they supported, say, basic health insurance for every citizen. Or excellent teachers for every child. Or some minimally decent reward for full-time work. In fact, for the last decade I assumed that the prominence of gay marriage as an issue would be an impediment to the pursuit of those other goals.

Boy, was I wrong. But this line of reasoning helps explain (although it doesn’t excuse) my own moral cowardice on gay marriage.

Whenever this issue has come up over the years, I wanted to avoid it. I viewed gay marriage as a way for conservatives to gin up turnout in elections and set back the cause of desperately needed improvements in education, health care and more. I urged folks who shared these goals to play down wars over gays, guns and God.

My guess is this “pragmatism” was akin to that of many politicians, though they wouldn’t put it so plainly. Bill Clinton was the modern model. Clinton went out of his way to execute a condemned Arkansas prisoner during the 1992 campaign to make sure an important swath of voters couldn’t possibly dismiss him as “weak on crime.” Getting the power, and the things he hoped to do with it, were what mattered. His thirst to win again in 1996 led Clinton to sign a Defense of Marriage Act that 17 years later he regrets and denounces.

No one ever said making Democrats electable at the presidential level was going to be pretty — or that the path to power would be pure.

Meanwhile, politicians (and like-minded pundits) could tell themselves that civil unions and full equality under the law sufficed, while maintaining the political space in which other progressive goals could advance. I had some gay friends who felt the same way, which helped me rationalize my own reticence.

But somewhere along the way I got mentally trapped in 2004, when a flurry of gay-marriage ballot measures seemed to help George W. Bush win reelection. What I didn’t appreciate was the unstoppable power of the drive for human dignity, and the prairie fire it would ignite once enough brave matches had been lit.

I recall asking my daughter and her friends a few years ago, when they were in their early teens, what they thought about gay marriage. They were baffled that it was even a question. They had classmates who were gay. Why shouldn’t people be able to love and marry whomever they chose? So simple. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, full equality is only a matter of time. Just as it should have been for gays serving in the military (where Israel was light years ahead of us — as a friend in Jerusalem put it in the mid-1990s: “For us, if you’re willing to die, it’s enough.”)

Barney Frank quipped to the New York Times this week that “my continued sexual attraction to men is [now] more politically acceptable than my attraction to government.”

That’s wry and profound. Maybe America’s accelerated “evolution” on gay marriage proves that the ultimate taboo in our society is redistribution. As Martin Luther King Jr. learned near the end, securing legal equality turned out to be the easy part. Nobody had to write a check. Equal opportunity and economic justice are entirely different matters, requiring a nation to take even bigger leaps of empathy and imagination.

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