Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marriage equality in New York

Something that is striking about the success of marriage equality in New York is how clearly it's connected to the success of past movements. One thing I took away from the excellent Sean Penn film about Harvey Milk was a sense for how 1970s gay rights activists had focused their energies on increasing gay visibility and actively encouraging people to come out of the closet. This wasn't, and isn't, an easy or obvious thing. In the abstract, no one should have to hide who they are, but in many, possibly a majority of cases, coming out of the closet would mean mental or even physical abuse in the family, and rejection in the community. The movement to encourage people - often young people - to come out was really putting individuals in harm's way in the theory that there would be future payoffs for the gay community as a whole.

Of course, pioneers like Milk were proven right a long time before New York legalized gay marriage, but after reading the Times piece on the politics of this recent victory, I'm struck by how tangible the connection is. Describing a meeting between Cuomo's most trusted advisers and top Republican donors:
It sounded improbable: top Republican moneymen helping a Democratic rival with one of his biggest legislative goals.

But the donors in the room — the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Dan Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure.
Such a thing was possible only because Singer's son is gay, and out of the closet. An even more stark example is how the marriage campaign got the recalcitrant senator Carl Kruger, who had a history of voting against marriage equality and antagonism with the gay rights movement, to change his vote:
Some gay activists, assuming he was a lost cause, had taken to picketing outside of his house and screaming that he was gay — an approach that seemed only to harden his opposition to their agenda. (Mr. Kruger has said he is not gay.)

But unbeknown to all but a few people, Mr. Kruger desperately wanted to change his vote. The issue, it turned out, was tearing apart his household.

The gay nephew of the woman he lives with, Dorothy Turano, was so furious at Mr. Kruger for opposing same-sex marriage two years ago that he had cut off contact with both of them, devastating Ms. Turano. “I don’t need this,” Mr. Kruger told Senator John L. Sampson of Brooklyn, the Democratic majority leader. “It has gotten personal now."

Mr. Sampson, a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, advised Mr. Kruger to focus on the nephew, not the political repercussions. “When everything else is gone,” Mr. Sampson told him, “all you have left is family.”
Nine days before he was assasinated, Harvey Milk recorded a will that began:
“This is Harvey Milk speaking on Friday November 18, 1978. This tape is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. …I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for—an activist, a gay activist—becomes the target or potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid or very disturbed…. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment, at any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts, and why I did what I did. Almost everything that was done was done with an eye on the gay movement. …”

“I cannot prevent some people from feeling angry and frustrated and mad in response to my death, but I hope they will take the frustration and madness and instead of demonstrating or anything of that type, I would hope that they would take the power and I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights. … All I ask. is for the movement to continue, and if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…”
Not only was his courage extraordinary, so was the courage that he asked of others. But he was right, and those gay lawyers and architects are the sons and daughters of people with power, and because of that, last night the number of same-sex couples with the right to marry in the United States doubled.

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