Gay Marriage Is Love; Why Are Chuck, Hillary Skittish on the Topic?

It’s always seemed to me that groups that have suffered from discrimination—Jews, women, people of color, for instance—have a special responsibility to speak out on behalf of other groups still suffering from bias. And that Senators from New York State have a special responsibility to take a leadership role in that fight. So ….

Chuck, Hillary, where’s the profile in courage? Could somebody explain this to me? I really want to know: Why is it that New York State’s two liberal Senators have refused to come out in favor of same-sex marriage rights? Yes, they support civil unions, partnership health benefits, hospital visits—all admirable. But without marriage rights, it’s second-class citizenship. Separate and unequal.

And both Senators opposed the noxious attempt to pass a federal constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage. Also admirable. But they’ve both refused to come out in support of a state amendment or legislation to make same-sex marriage legal here.

I have to admit, I found this shocking when I learned about it. I guess I should have read up more on the question, but until the recent unfortunate New York State top-court rejection of same-sex marriage rights, I think I just assumed that, on what I believe is a basic civil-rights question, New York’s Senators would be in the forefront of the quest for equal rights. I think a lot of their supporters, straight and gay, must have had the same assumption.

What kind of message does that send to the rest of the country, the rest of the Democratic Party? That even New York’s Senators lack the political courage to come out for gay marriage, so why should any politician in the rest of the country take a risk?

Has the Democrats’ consultant-driven terror in the face of “values voters” so disabled them from defending the civil-rights values that they used to stand for? Instead of cowering behind “civil unions,” why shouldn’t we have New York Senators who will take a leadership position on the values at stake in this issue: Make the case to voters that there are “values,” good old-fashioned American values, that would support ending this kind of discrimination.

I remember reading in college about the way, as far back as in the 30’s, New York Senators fought for civil-rights legislation, for anti-lynching and anti-segregation legislation, when it was not about focus groups but about being on the side of the disadvantaged. I thought this was a great New York tradition, even among New York Republican Senators. One that our current Senators are ducking for cover on.

And no, I don’t think that “civil unions” are an adequate substitute for full equality. I know that if I’d been denied the right to marry someone because of my religion, as was often true of Jews in Europe in the last century, or because of race, as was true of black people in many U.S. states as recently as the 60’s, the offer of second-class-status “civil union” wouldn’t have been anything more than an affirmation of discrimination. This is not an issue for gay people but for all people, who should be outraged at this continuing affront to the personal dignity of so many of our fellow citizens.

SOME WILL SAY, SOME HAVE SAID, that there’s a difference between religious and racial discrimination and gender-preference discrimination, and it’s true they’re not the same thing. But I feel that what these kinds of discrimination have in common is more important than what is different about them.

And I think one could even make the argument that on constitutional grounds, the case against gender-preference discrimination is at least as strong as the case against religious discrimination. After all, the Constitution specifically forbids an establishment of religion, and thus religious discrimination. (Indeed, you could say that the prohibition of same-sex marriage is a kind of religious discrimination: With sex, as with religion, one could say, it’s all a matter of being allowed to worship at different shrines.)

But the last time I read it, there was no specific description of marriage in the Constitution. Yes, you could say that the Founders may have assumed this or that about the “sanctity” of marriage and the absolute need that such sanctity not be extended to same-sex unions. But it ain’t in there! And the fact that it’s not undermines judicial decisions about what the Founders might have thought. Bad enough that the Founders explicitly legitimized slavery and denied the vote to women; bad enough the discrimination that was written into it. No need to dream up penumbral discriminations that are not there.

The very fact that hard-core opponents of same-sex marriage feel threatened enough to propose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage implies that they believe it is, at this point, de jure constitutional.

I DON’T THINK THOSE WHO OPPOSE GAY MARRIAGE are necessarily bigots, although obviously some are. I think one can hold the sincere conviction that it’s wrong for oneself, bad for society, contrary to religious belief. But I haven’t been convinced by those arguments that it’s some kind of “threat” to “traditional marriage.” Selfishness and bad behavior are far greater threats.

Dreaming up imaginary “threats” in order to absolve oneself from personal responsibility and justify discrimination against others seems to me to be a greater threat to marriage because it’s just not very loving. And a lack of lovingness within a marriage, within the marriage partners, seems more of a threat than the kind of lovingness people across the street engage in. Imposing one’s personal beliefs, especially on religious grounds, to deny what you have to others, the supposed healing beauty of marriage, seems to me to be uncharitable as well as unconstitutional.

Let the “threat,” if there is one, make your commitment stronger, make you more loving. Being more tolerant of those who feel love but express it differently would seem to me to be something that would strengthen any human relationship.

And speaking of loving, does anyone remember Loving v. Virginia, the wonderfully fortuitously named Supreme Court case that ruled miscegenation laws—laws that prohibited marriages or, in some cases, any sexual contact between blacks and whites—unconstitutional?

The fascinating thing is that it wasn’t decided until the late 60’s. Is there anyone who disagrees with that ruling now except those who burn crosses? And yet it was the conventional wisdom in a large swath of the country until the Loving decision.

Yes, it’s true that it’s unlikely that this Supreme Court is going to be friendly to same-sex marriage cases. But even the abolition of anti-miscegenation laws in the Loving decision was as much an outcome of a political and cultural struggle—the civil-rights struggle that changed the landscape on which the court’s decision in Loving was made. The civil-rights struggle that those who demonize the 60’s tend to conveniently omit.

Without that kind of struggle, without some leadership from the state and the Senators who should be in the forefront of that leadership, the landscape on same-sex marriage rights will never change. Maybe the landscape will never change anyway; maybe the opposition will prevail on a national basis. But didn’t you feel that, after the recent New York State Court of Appeals decision, the two New York Senators should have immediately held a joint press conference announcing their all-out backing for state legislation or an amendment to make same-sex marriage legal? Maybe the struggle will have to be conducted on a state-by-state basis, but shouldn’t it start here?

SO LET’S LOOK A LITTLE MORE CLOSELY at why New York’s liberal Senators are not taking a leadership position on this. Hillary Clinton’s extremely guarded statement on the subject can only be called classic Clintonism: She has limited herself to the somewhat cryptic formulation that “I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been: between a man and a woman.”

Cryptic because it could be taken as merely descriptive. As if, 100 years ago, someone had said that “voting is as voting has always been: something done by men”—not necessarily an endorsement of one-sex voting. Or is it meant to sound prescriptive, a dog whistle to potential red-state Presidential voters: Marriage should continue to be as it “has always been: between a man and a woman.”

It’s remarkable, isn’t it—with the Clintons, everything always seems to come down to the ambiguity of what “is” is. Here, is “is” an observation or an affirmation?

It’s not good enough, this stance, not for a New York Senator. Not just because polls show a majority (53 percent to 38 percent) of New Yorkers would favor legitimizing same-sex marriage. It should not be a poll-driven decision. It should be a courage-and-conviction-driven decision that honors the tradition of being a New York Senator.

I put the question to Senator Clinton’s press secretary, Jennifer Hanley, in an e-mail: What is the rationale for favoring civil unions even with all the partnership benefits, etc., but not same-sex marriage?

So far, I haven’t heard back from her, nor from Senator Schumer’s spokesperson, to whom I put the same question.

And Chuck Schumer, what’s your excuse? Presidential ambitions? I’ve heard some (Jewish) colleagues wonder if Mr. Schumer’s close ties with his original Orthodox Jewish constituency in Brooklyn are responsible. But it seems to me there are Jewish reasons to be for same-sex marriage. Where is your haimish side, Chuck? The Jewish-uncle persona, the guy who wants to include people in the circle of laughter and good feeling rather than exclude. Where’s your identification with the great New York Jewish Senators who fought racist discriminatory laws and practices with all their hearts?

I think Mr. Schumer’s (and Mrs. Clinton’s) fallback, the “civil union,” has to be looked at in that light. It’s second-class, exclusionary citizenship no matter how you look at it. It’s Jim Crow treatment. Yes, it’s better than nothing. I’d be willing to be convinced that there’s an argument—from a tactical point of view—that civil unions are a first step. But even from a tactical point of view, it seems misguided to do this and oppose (and thus delegitimize) for short-term advantage same-sex marriage itself. A calculated act of political caution in a state that expects leadership from its Senators.

Certainly no manifestation of the loving kindness that those who sing the praises of marriage speak about. Gay Marriage Is Love; Why Are Chuck, Hillary Skittish on the Topic?