Marriage, Equality, and Dignity

This week I am proud to be a New Yorker. Our governor and our state legislature, which have not been a source of pride in recent years, distinguished themselves in noteworthy ways.

There was the normal stuff. A timely budget and new ethics law passed without much drama. And there was the extraordinary, a fundamental human rights advance. Marriage is no longer a heterosexual privilege in my home state.

I should add that there are many problems with Governors Cuomo’s approach to our economic problems, in my opinion: too easy on the wealthy, too hard on the poor and public employees. I hope that now that he has established himself as fiscally responsible, he will turn next year to more directly addressing the suffering of working people and the poor. I am not a fan of the economically conservative, socially liberal blend.

In fact, the establishment of the new marriage contract right has both advantages and disadvantages for specific gay couples, as was observed by Katherine M. Franke in a New York Times op. ed. piece. There is less openness about the inclusion of partners in insurance coverage, more restrictions. The marriage option should not become a marriage compulsion. And I am also not sure how progressive this development is. It is noteworthy that the advance of gay marriage ties people to a traditional state sanctioned relationship, something which wise conservatives have noted (including Gary Alan Fine in a private exchange we had). Gays in the military and gay marriage, seen in this light, are important conservative advances. No wonder former Vice President Cheney is a supporter of gay marriage.

Yet, marriage equality is something that is truly significant, going well beyond the details of the marriage contract and political ideology. It formalizes a fundamental advance in human rights and dignity. Another opinion piece in the Times gets at the true significance of the moment, Frank Bruni’s “To Know Us Is to Let Us Love.” He underscores how spectacular the advance is in comparison to what he had hoped for as a young gay man coming of age in the 80s, and he makes the point that once people know homosexual love, they approve. After citing the examples of some leading public figures, he tells the story of his 76 year old Republican father:

“Years ago he would quietly leave the room whenever my sexual orientation came up in a family conversation. But when he urged me to attend a Halloween party he gave for his friends last fall, he insisted I bring Tom, whom he has come to know well over the two and a half years we’ve been together. And as he introduced us to his golf partners from the country club, he said, ‘This is my son, Frank. And this is my other son, Tom. Or at least I think of him that way.’”

And then Bruni asked his father the telling question:

“‘Do you support gay marriage? I asked him. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, explaining that it still seemed strange. He added: ‘But not if you know the person.’ ‘Meaning me?’ I said. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I mean Tom. He’s a good person. If you and he got married? I guess that would be O.K. Yeah, that would be fine.’”

The first time I read this passage, I confess, I teared up. This is true recognition of the other, and a great advance in that it is increasingly becoming the norm. The recognition is more important than the contract. The contract seals the human ideal.

There was a long cultural march leading to this victory, with more legal challenges to go. But I think it is worth noting the march as it appeared in everyday life. Hannah Arendt tells us that political power is constituted when people meet each other as equals in their differences as distinct human beings, and they speak and act in each other’s presence and they develop the capacity to act in concert.  It is the power of Tom, Frank and his father that led to the advance this week in New York, and I believe it is the continued development of this power that will extend gay rights and dignity in the coming years.

Before closing, I must pay tribute to an old friend, Joe Borgovini, who died of aids in the early 90s. We lost touch, but through the web and a Google search a few years ago, I discovered the sad news which I very much feared. We were college apartment mates. I vividly remember the day he told my then girl friend, Naomi, and me that he is gay. I think it must have been in the late winter or early spring of 1970. Coming out was just becoming a significant form of activism. We were truly shocked. Joe had another life about which we knew nothing. He, for the first time, openly told us about himself. Our friendship deepened.

There hadn’t been any open discussion about sexual orientation in our social circles, which means that such discussion was rare indeed, since we were all New Left activists, very much at the forefront of progressive politics. It now seems remarkable how limited we were. We were often demonstrating for social justice and the environment, against racism, against the war. “Gay Liberation” was a very new thing. And after our first discussion, a world that had been hidden became visible. A world, not only  individuals, came out. We talked with our friend and we proudly marched in the first Gay Pride Parade in Albany, New York, with him, along with his friends. I wish we could celebrate with him today.