During his sophomore year in high school, one of our sons mentioned at the dinner table that a classmate had come out of the closet. I can't even remember which of the two boys it was, and that's not only because my memory is now so bad that I can reread mystery novels and not recall whodunit. It's because the announcement was such a big nothing among the kids that it was only slightly more noteworthy than "pass the mac and cheese." Unlike my own high-school friends, these kids took gay for granted.
One of the most transformative social movements over our lifetime has been the battle for gay rights, and the key to its great success has been the grass-roots phenomenon of exploding stereotypes by simply saying, "Yes, I am." Each time the woman at the next desk or the guy down the street lets it be known that he or she is gay, it takes another brick out of the wall of division. Or, as Ellen DeGeneres told John McCain on her show recently, "We are all the same people, all of us."
That's what the California Supreme Court said when it ruled that gay couples should have the right to marry as a matter of basic equality. Before you could say "Jonathan and Andrew request the honour of your presence," opponents were suggesting that civilization would crash and burn if two guys could register at Pottery Barn and raise kids in a ranch house. All those wailing that gay marriage is an invention of amoral modernism might want to consider these lines from a Roman poem of the second century A.D.:
"The bearded Callistratus married the rugged Afer/Under the same law by which a woman takes a husband./Torches were carried before him, a bridal veil covered his face." And afterward everyone sat down to salmon, rice pilaf and chocolate mousse. Well, actually, I made up that last part just as surely as some people are making up the dire consequences of same-sex troth-plighting.
In the wake of the court's decision, those folks vowed to find a way to protect the sanctity of hetero marriage, that time-honored staple of sitcom mockery and savage custody fights. Polls showing opposition to gay marriage were proffered to prove that the court had overstepped its bounds, ignoring the fact that the most sacred business of judges is not to ratify the will of the majority but to protect the minority from its tyranny.
It is true that the California Supreme Court is something of a Scandinavia of jurisprudence, willing to get out front on social issues. But it's not really courts and legislatures that will settle this issue. It's the neighbors, friends and family members who have come out and made the political personal—and lovable. Jennifer? Smart, funny Jennifer? Of course she should be able to marry Anne. They're perfect together.
If only coming out could be used in other areas that remain unsettled and contentious. The stereotype of the feckless woman who has an abortion and then a pedicure is a sub rosa staple of the opposition, and there's no question that it could be counteracted by real people talking about making a difficult but necessary choice. But since abortion has always been couched, quite properly, as an issue of personal privacy, that feels discordant. Immigrants face bigotry that grows directly out of the swamp of ignorance, but the impulse—and the pressure—to fit in means that they don't often testify to where they come from and what their lives are really like.
Gay men and lesbians have prospered because they've refused to acquiesce to the notion that they should hide their lives from public view. Two by two they've adopted children, bought homes, volunteered in their communities and slogged through life together just the way hetero couples do, except without preferential tax codes, inheritance rights and the automatic assumption that they can make decisions for one another in emergency situations. Too often, without legal protection, they have found themselves dependent on the kindness of those who were not kind, like the man in Indiana who became severely disabled and whose parents prohibited his partner of 25 years from visiting him in their home.
Here's what I don't understand: is there so much love and commitment in the world that we can afford, as a society, to be contemptuous of some portion of it? If two women in white want to join hands in front of their families and friends and vow to love and honor one another until they die, the only reasonable response to that is happy tears, awed admiration and societal approval. And—this part is just personal opinion—one of those big honking KitchenAid mixers with the dough hook.
Before we know it that will be the response everywhere, not just in Denmark and the Netherlands and Canada and California: approval, appliances. The polls predict the future. The younger you are, the more likely you are to know someone who is gay. The more likely you are to know someone who is gay, the more likely you are to support gay marriage. The opposition is aging out.
Someday soon the fracas surrounding all this will seem like a historical artifact, like the notion that women were once prohibited from voting and a black individual from marrying a white one. Our children will attend the marriages of their friends, will chatter about whether they will last, will whisper to one another, "Love him, don't like him so much." The California Supreme Court called gay marriage a "basic civil right." In hindsight, it will merely be called ordinary life.