My sweetheart and I got married two summers ago. In many ways, it was a very traditional ceremony. Our families and friends joined us from all over the world to celebrate. We took a vow to love, honor, and cherish one another till death do us part, and our mothers wept with joy. There was an exchange of gold rings and dinner for over 100 people at a beautiful restaurant, with a cake, dancing, and champagne toasts.
But in one obvious way our wedding was a non-traditional event: My beloved is a bright, softspoken, handsome man named Keith.
We got married six months before San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom took the controversial stand that all people have the right to equal protection under the California constitution. It was not a radical step, for Keith and I have been loving, honoring, and cherishing one another now for ten years. True, our marriage does not confer upon us the same rights that most of our wedded friends have, but we didn't get married to gain tax advantages or earn such basic privileges as being able to visit one another in the hospital. We got married for the same reasons that most people do: to publicly declare that our two fates, from that day forward, would become one fate.
As I read through the post-mortems of the 2004 election speculating about whether or not "the gay-marriage issue" cost John Kerry his presidency -- with many Democrats supporting this view -- I have the strangest feeling of reading about my sweet, ordinary life with Keith as if distorted through a series of funhouse mirrors. When writer Bill Bennett places our lives in opposition to "ethical values" and a "decent society," as he did in the National Review the day after the election, does he mean us? Apparently so. By now, the concept of same-sex marriage has become such an abstract, exaggerated threat to so many otherwise fine and compassionate people -- and so divorced from the humble, self-evident blessing of two souls caring deeply for one another -- it's time for a national reality check.
Keith and I are not political activists. His family has traditionally voted Republican, and his parents voted for Bush in the recent election. Until recently, Keith's father was the mayor of a small town in the Midwest. The first time I met him, he took me aside and said, "I know that you are very special to Keith, so that means you are very special to us." There was such simple, human, Midwestern forthrightness in that statement. No banner-waving, no Biblical injunctions, no soapboxing. Just a clear and compassionate message: We love our son and trust his ability to make the most personal decision of all.
Keith and I didn't get married to commit a pioneering act of civil disobedience, to redefine marriage" as President Bush claimed during his campaign, or to outrage the religious right. We took our vows because getting married seemed like the sane next step of our commitment to one another. We figured the best way to defend the sanctity of marriage was to have one, and live up to the promises that we made to one another that blessed day.
A few days before our ceremony, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, drew a parallel between our desire to declare our love and "prostitution or illegal commercial drug activity in the home." And Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia unleashed a 21-page torrent of warnings from the highest bench in the land, comparing homosexuality to "fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality and obscenity." When President Bush declared his support for a Constitutional amendment banning marriages like ours, he raised the threat of attempting to "change the most fundamental institution of civilization." Now even some Democrats are saying that the President rode that threat into the White House for another term. They insist that to "get real" and get elected, any future candidate should distance himself from the issue entirely.
These grave declarations from the guardians of our public welfare have a familiar ring. They bring to mind the statements made in support of laws against misecegenation that were on the books in 16 states until 1967, when the Supreme Court overturned them in a case memorably named Loving v. Virginia. The couple in question, a white man named Richard Loving and a black woman, Mildred Jeter, drove to Washington to say their vows, because their home state of Virginia had banned interracial marriages. For this offense, they were exiled from Virginia for 25 years by a trial judge who declared, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages."
Overturning the judge's decision, the High Court ruled, "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men... Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival."
A lot has changed since Loving v. Virginia. These days, the first judge's statements about race seem sad and a little silly. I'm confident that in 20 years, the fulminations of those currently exploiting marriage to mobilize their base will seem equally silly and sad. I believe that Vice President Cheney knows this in his heart too, as he made clear with a silence that spoke volumes during his debate with John Edwards. Only a very cruel father indeed would want anything less than the happiness and soul-tempering challenge of matrimony for his own children. And I know something that is presently obscured in the fog: If Republicans from the Midwest, like Keith's family, are able to welcome their new son-in-law into the family with open hearts, the culture war is already over, and the loving people won.
As fate had it, my own father passed away suddenly six months after our wedding. The day of my betrothal to Keith turned out to be the last day that my friends and many members of my family got to see my father. I'm glad they will remember my dad as he was on that day. He was glowing.
To both political parties, I offer this bit of advice. Align yourself with the strategy that will win in the long term, unless you want to be losers. Your children already know that love does not discriminate, and they are the voters of the near future. The laws against marriage passed in eleven states on this past Election Day will not stand, and will -- sooner than you think -- be recognized for what they are: ugly, regrettable, fear-driven steps backward on the long march toward democracy and respect for everyone.
To other couples like me and my beloved Keith, I say: keep getting married, proudly and publicly, in the face of any cynical attempt to exploit misunderstanding of your lives for short-term political gain. A sane, ethical, decent, compassionate world has to start somewhere.
Our country was founded on the principle that certain truths and liberties are self-evident. If there's anything in life that's self-evident, it's love, particularly on a wedding day. When Keith and I said our vows, we weren't thinking of overturning laws and changing society. We were thinking of our families, our friends, and most of all, our love for one another -- a rare and precious thing between any two people.
What could be more traditional?