Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution - Linda Hirshman (2012)
Chapter 8. Failed Marriages and Losing Battles: The Premature Campaign for Marriage and Military Service
May 18, 1992, was a gorgeous day in Hollywood, California. A crowd of exceptionally good-looking and well-dressed men (and a few women) filled the courtyard of the bright blue Spanish-style Palace Theatre. As the day turned to evening, Bill Clinton’s motorcade pulled up and he and his old friend David Mixner got out. When Mixner, a mainstay of the Los Angeles gay and lesbian scene, took the stage, the people at the Palace erupted. Dressed in an immaculate white shirt and a blue suit, the handsome Mixner looked out at the crowd.
“My brothers and sisters,” he said in his customary twang, “we’ve all come a long way.”
The Long Way
What a way it had been. Mixner, raised in the 1940s on a farm in rural New Jersey, like Clinton in Hot Springs, Arkansas, grew up without indoor plumbing. Being gay, he always knew he was different; he thought he was bad and he desperately feared being caught. For a poor rural boy, getting away even to a modest college like Arizona State was like escaping from jail. When he met Clinton on vacation from Oxford at an antiwar retreat in 1969, he had a moment’s pause. “If I weren’t gay,” he asked himself, “would I have thought I could go to a fancy college too? Be a Rhodes scholar?”
As with so many refugees from “Amerika,” when the Sixties receded, Mixner took refuge in California. Closeted and well connected from his antiwar activism, he soon got to be a player in Los Angeles, making a living as a political consultant. Little by little, he let people in on his secret, until, finally, in the heat of the battle against the Briggs initiative in 1978, he came out. His friends Bill and Hillary were totally okay with it, they said.
Mixner had come to Los Angeles politics at just the right time: by the midseventies in the city of glamour and power, glamorous, powerful gay men had decided to make their cause fashionable. Not for them the “hippies” of the Stonewall-era gay and lesbian center. In 1976, Peter Scott, a successful lawyer and the love of David Mixner’s life, gathered the men in his consciousness-raising group and added a few more A-gays to start the first gay political action committee. The PAC became the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), a nice neutral name like Human Rights Campaign. In a stunning debut, MECLA took down the entrenched, rabidly antigay Los Angeles City Council president John Gibson. Since the presidency of the city council always went to the leading vote-getter in the council elections, MECLA simply gave Gibson’s hapless opponent five thousand dollars, and the nonentity took a third of Gibson’s vote, relegating Gibson to the relatively powerless position of just another councilman.
Even in the eighties, as AIDS devastated their community, the wealthy, connected gays and lesbians of California were creating the institutions of what would ultimately become the gay establishment. The new organizations revealed their financial power almost immediately. LA gays, led by the omnipresent David Goodstein, had created the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRC-F), modeled on MECLA, in 1980. A mere two years later, the gay campaign fund gave almost two hundred thousand dollars to Democratic candidates. The same year, Senator Edward Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the MECLA dinner.
The gay political organizing benefited greatly, as it always does, from competition within the Democratic Party, this time in the run-up to the presidential election in 1984. Not only did they have money to spend, but California, the last big primary state, made California Democrats disproportionately powerful in the nominating process. Democratic presidential aspirant Walter Mondale grudgingly signed on to the still small—yet slowly growing—minority supporting the federal nondiscrimination bill, now a decade in the hopper. Leading Democratic contender Gary Hart came to Mixner for the MECLA endorsement, followed by his real goal, a big private gay fund-raiser. Although their candidate, Hart, did not win the nomination, gay Californians began to make demands in exchange for their financial support. The 1984 Democratic National Convention included a record number of gay delegates and produced a robustly progay platform.
In 1987, in response to the glacial, maddening federal drug-approval process, Mixner and his pals devised the successful strategy of getting California to do its own funding and approval of AIDS drugs. A sympathetic state attorney general shepherded the law through the state legislature, and places like California’s Salk Institute started doing their own research. Along the long way, Mixner’s love, Peter Scott, died of AIDS. Even California could not stop the dying. But the research went on.
The flood of money AIDS unleashed within the gay community overflowed to the political groups. When Michael Dukakis declared his race for president in 1988, Mixner and MECLA calculated they could easily raise a million dollars for him. Mixner says Dukakis’s people wouldn’t accept money openly donated by a gay group, so the deal fell through. But the candidate’s misstep finally motivated the California group to move beyond supporting straight so-called allies and into running its own candidates. MECLA morphed into Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality (ANGLE). When Abby Rubenfeld came to Lambda’s office in “a closet” at the New York Civil Liberties Union as its second employee in 1983, the lawyers’ organization had an income of around one hundred thousand dollars. When she left in 1988, they were running just under a million. In 1989, the Human Rights Campaign took its increasing stream of donations and declared itself not just a PAC, but a federal, state, and local lobby “for the social promotion of the gay and lesbian community.” The next year, Vic Basile, just retired from building the HRC Fund, along with some pals from Texas decided that if big women donors could elect Ann Richards governor of Texas, gays and lesbians should start a PAC to fund openly gay and lesbian candidates. In less than a year the Victory Fund had put an African American lesbian on the Seattle City Council.
The newly self-conscious gay power players might have been imitating the women’s political action committee, but they certainly weren’t going to dress up like women (unless they happened to be women). As the gay establishment began to establish itself, it consciously left the transgendered and other socially radical elements of the community behind. In 1986, strategic compromisers from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the growing Lambda Legal Foundation finally got the gay antidiscrimination city ordinance New York activists had been seeking since Stonewall. In order to win the battle they had to abandon their gender-nonconforming allies. New York political guru Ethan Geto was brutally frank when confronted by angry queens: “Let me just explain this to you. We can’t do this. We can’t do this. This is what we can do.” If Ted Kennedy’s campaign insisted, as it did, that the same-sex dancing not start until the senator was long gone from the MECLA dinner, they wouldn’t dance. The movement that started with the pearl-bedecked Communist Harry Hay in 1948 was going to try the conventional route. Emphasizing their similarity with heterosexual allies and using the most establishment political weapon—money—the new establishment aspired to make a new move in gay politics: respectability.
Clinton Had a Vision and Gays Were a Part of It
So David Mixner was not entirely surprised in 1991 when he got a call from his old friend Bill Clinton. “He called and asked me to support him,” Mixner recalls. “I was a friend, and I said I don’t know, and he was taken aback because I was a friend, I had worked on his campaigns in Arkansas.” But Mixner had a larger purpose: “I said I want to know how you stand on the issues—the military, employment discrimination, hate crimes, AIDS.”
Mixner’s inclusion of “the military” in his wish list reflects the increased political ambition of the post-AIDS movement. And why not? Being closeted, gays were already in the military, and their records were laden with positive reviews and promotions. No one could argue that gays, being gay, would not make good soldiers. There was a long history of resisting the military exclusion. The first stable gay organization in America was the 1945 Veterans Benevolent Association, organized to fight the injustice of the blue discharges issued to World War II soldiers accused of homosexuality. In the wake of Stonewall, numerous soldiers rose up to challenge their discharges, but gradually the challenges, largely unsuccessful, died out. As early as 1988 pressure began to build within the movement to try again. Lesbian activists found out by chance about “lesbian baiting,” how the antigay policy was used against women who didn’t put out for their male superior officers. Some soldiers started asking Lambda Legal for legal counsel to contest their discharges. Asking for a national declaration of equality in the hidebound institutions of war making was a far stretch from asking New York City employers not to discriminate or electing people to the Seattle City Council. But the issue was so seductive. In addition to the injustice of denying people the opportunities they sought in the military, activists knew that President Truman’s integration of the military in 1948 had been invaluable to the racial civil rights movement. All they needed was a Harry Truman.
At first, LA gays did not think it would be Bill Clinton. Everyone in the community was leaning toward Clinton’s rival, Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, whose record on gay and lesbian issues was the best in the country. In 1979, when even Ted Kennedy would not sign on, Tsongas became the first “liberal” in the entire United States Senate to step up and sponsor the federal antidiscrimination law Steve Endean and the gay lobbyists had proposed. Tsongas won awards from the Massachusetts Task Force. With his support, Massachusetts had a state antidiscrimination law, while in Arkansas sodomy was still a criminal offense (and when a liberal state legislator tried to repeal it he got no help from then-governor Clinton). But when Tsongas met with the ANGLE group, he just kept pointing to a booklet reciting his record. And he didn’t even stay for lunch.
Poor Paul Tsongas. When Bill and Hillary Clinton came to the obligatory candidate meeting with the ANGLE heavy hitters that October, Hillary turned their heads with her encyclopedic grasp of the details of health care and the AIDS epidemic. Bill won their hearts with his intuitive empathy for what he called their “cycle of death” and a very specific list of commitments. He would have signed the gay antidiscrimination bill Republican California governor Pete Wilson had just vetoed, he promised. Obviously lacking any sense of what he was getting into, in response to a question at a student forum earlier in the campaign, Clinton had offhandedly promised to issue an executive order to end discrimination in the military. He repeated the promise in LA. Exiting the meeting, candidate Clinton went public with his commitment to the gay and lesbian politicos and told the Los Angeles Times the same thing: he thought the state gay antidiscrimination bill was the right thing to do. The LA group was in Clinton’s palm.
And so that May, Mixner introduced his friend Bill Clinton to the biggest presidential rally ever held by the gay and lesbian community. “I didn’t think I could allow myself to dream any more,” Mixner told the crowd, “until last October I sat down with Bill Clinton and he said he’d sign an executive order banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military and I thought of the thousands each year who are discharged and I started dreaming of all of us standing here like this on a lawn in the White House next March and there’s this big table and the President of the United States picks up a pen and with the stroke of a pen we’re so much freer, so much freer, I’m allowing myself to dream again and it’s because of this man, who’s going to be our Harry Truman . . . the next President of the United States, Bill Clinton!!”
The videotape of Clinton’s appearance at the Hollywood Palace that May went the 1992 version of viral immediately, copies of the tape circulating everywhere in the gay community. When ANGLE made a three-minute excerpt to use in campaigning, people were already watching the whole thing on the TVs in the gay bars. Anyone who ever doubted Clinton has only to watch the video to see why he was such a phenomenon. It’s a short speech. But so was the Gettysburg Address.
Clinton did not start with the interest group before him. He started, like Lincoln, with the founding principles of the liberal state. All Americans are one people, he began, by “our nature, our basic values, and our basic laws.” In contrast with the Supreme Court, which had just, six years before, called such comparisons to homosexuals “facetious,” he surrounded the movement in the room with all the other movements that sought admission into citizenship in the liberal state: one people “without regard to race or gender or sexual orientation or age or region or income.” Inclusion of gays and lesbians in the great national proposition, he continued, is not just doing good; it is also doing well by doing good. Because “you represent a community of our nation’s gifted people that we have been willing to squander. We can’t afford to waste the hearts, abilities and minds of the gay and lesbian people, for every day that we refuse to avail ourselves of the potential of any group of Americans, we are less than we ought to be.” It’s a foregone conclusion, then, that we just can’t afford to waste such able people when they want to serve in the military.
It would have been unthinkable for a political candidate to speak to this audience in the second decade of the AIDS epidemic without addressing the disease. Clinton selected from the many possible aspects of AIDS the perfect segue from the value of the people his nation has been willing to waste: their virtue. Gay was good:
When it was dark and lonely you did not withdraw and this nation has already benefited from the courage and sense of community which you practiced. You did the first important work in pioneering AIDS drugs, you sounded the alarm, stood fast in face of government discrimination and killing silence. And I want to give you my thanks for that struggle today.
Many of the people he was talking to had paid extra to the funeral homes to bury their lovers. When Mixner went to a fund-raiser at the home of some straight liberal allies during the worst of it, he had been offered dinner on a paper plate. By May it was pretty clear that this man was likely to be the next president of the United States. And he was thanking them. There was not a dry eye in the house when he concluded, “I have a vision and you’re a part of it. I believe we’re all a part of the same community and we’d better start behaving as if we are.”
After the election, CNN’s Bill Schneider said that one in seven votes for Clinton was connected to the gay community, either through direct votes or from families. When Clinton’s gay organizers would put out a call for volunteers, thousands turned out in West Hollywood. The campaign had to send buses to take them to other congressional districts because they were too many for their district. Nationally, gays raised four million dollars for Clinton. In 1992. They were a part of it.
Until They Weren’t
Six months after taking office, on July 19, 1993, Clinton announced that the regulations governing gays in the military would be changed to eliminate inquiry into the sexual orientation of applicants. The new policy still called for military discharge of a service member for homosexual conduct, including statements indicating a propensity to engage in homosexual acts. The policy, which came to be known by the shorthand don’t ask/don’t tell, was an unsatisfactory “compromise” that resulted in the pursuit and separation of thousands of gay and lesbian military personnel in the ensuing years. Worse, two months later the policy was enacted into federal law.
President Clinton’s initiative on gays in the military was an almost perfect political disaster. After the fact, gay organizations had a field day of recrimination. Whose idea was it to put military service at the head of the agenda? In the middle of the AIDS epidemic? Why weren’t their own organizations more prepared for the firestorm? When did Bill Clinton’s pledge get to be reliable political capital?
Despite this agonized second guessing, the don’t ask/don’t tell debacle illustrates the illusory nature of perfect movement rationality and perfect movement control. Just as nothing seemed to move most of the institutions of the gay movement during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, nothing probably could have stopped the ill-considered, ill-timed attempt to reverse the military policy when Clinton reached the White House.
As always, chance played a role. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force got involved when, in 1988, NGLTF director Sue Hyde, who was touring the South visiting the states that still had sodomy laws, began hearing the stories of lesbian baiting of the women at the Parris Island, South Carolina, marine base. Further investigation revealed a harrowing pattern of sexual harassment of the female marines followed by threats of outing or criminal prosecution for sodomy if they did not comply. Inspired by what they were seeing, Hyde and her radical sidekick Urvashi Vaid started the Military Freedom Project. Their first strategy was to make an alliance with feminist groups to fight the use of lesbian baiting in service of illegal sexual harassment.
Joe Steffan found his voice. When the navy booted him out of the US Naval Academy mere weeks before his graduation in 1991, Steffan seriously considered doing nothing. Someone put him in touch with seventies gay military victim ex-midshipman Copy Berg. Inspired by Berg’s story, Steffan went to Lambda Legal and sued the navy. A year later, Petty Officer Keith Meinhold and Lieutenant (JG) Tracy Thorne both went voluntarily on ABC News Nightline to announce their homosexuality. Both were discharged and both sued. Before 1992 was out, another militant homosexual soldier surfaced in the unlikely person of fifty-year-old Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, chief of nursing in the Washington National Guard. These individuals were all military stars. Steffan was a battalion commander, one of the ten highest-ranking midshipmen at the academy, Thorne was a bombardier-navigator, according to his commander, an “exemplary,” “hard-charging lieutenant,” and Meinhold one of the best flight instructors his superiors knew. Cammermeyer had won a Bronze Star for her service in a Vietnam field hospital. While Midshipman Steffan was doing discovery for his lawsuit, someone leaked him a study of gays in the military that the Defense Department had secretly requested from the Personnel Security Research and Education Center (PERSEREC) of the Pentagon. The report concluded that there was no evidence showing gays were unsuitable for the military. It was the military’s leaked study Bill Clinton was talking about in his speech at the Hollywood Palace.
For months before Inauguration Day, as Americans learned from Clinton’s various statements that gay service was on the table, the institutions of the religious right started hammering on it. In an interview with sociologist David Rayside after the fact, astute political observer Congressman Barney Frank explained how legislators think when their phones light up like that: “People’s ability to organize mail is a pretty good marker for their ability to organize votes. . . . If you know these people are totally out of sympathy with the overwhelming majority of the public, that lessens their impact. But if you know that the public is divided, what legislators attend to is the public opinion that registers itself. It’s not public opinion; it’s voter opinion.” Public-opinion polling soon reflected the successful campaign against gays in the military, plummeting from an approval rating of 60 percent in 1992 to less than half that a year later. David Mixner thinks that had Clinton simply issued the order rescinding the military policy prohibiting homosexuals from serving, along with a bunch of other executive orders his first day in office, he might have gotten away with it, as when Jimmy Carter pardoned the draft dodgers in 1977. Instead, Clinton had started the process by asking his secretary of defense to start preparing an executive order, and all hell broke loose.
Despite the somewhat limited involvement of the NGLTF, the gay movement was simply unprepared for this fight. There wasn’t even an organization of gay service members, past or present. Since the agreement to lift the ban had emerged from the small, wealthy California activist groups, what passed for mass, grassroots organizations, such as the NGLTF and the Human Rights Campaign, had no say so and no plan. When the organizations finally generated a counter campaign, dispatching able movement lawyers like Lambda’s Tom Stoddard to stave off the worst outcome, it was beyond too late.
But the problem wasn’t only an unprepared movement. A just-elected president, with a majority of his own party in both houses of Congress, might have been able to resist the collective force of the vocal and powerful religious right. The open gay baiting and antifeminism of the 1992 Republican National Convention was widely regarded as one of the causes for the defeat of incumbent Republican president Bush in the election. The problem was that the movement, and also probably Clinton and his liberal allies, had underestimated the extent to which the military defined itself by old-fashioned standards of heterosexual maleness. Monied and connected Los Angeles gays might have thought of themselves as the pillars of the community, but the military establishment had quite a different view.
President Clinton and his besotted gay supporters soon learned that they faced General Colin Powell, the universally revered, Republican-sponsored first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and white-ethnic big-city Democrat Charles Moskos, eminent academic chronicler of the racial integration of the armed services. Collectively, in their background and politics the three antigay crusaders might be taken to represent as close as you come to a centrist political position in 1993.
None of these men would express their opposition in terms of disobedience of God’s law or destruction of the family. Instead, they put forth a defense of the current policy in terms of the troops’ entitlement to privacy and the threat of homosexuals to good order and discipline. Powell was the killer. When he went public in opposing President Clinton’s plan to admit open gays to the military, then-representative Pat Schroeder wrote him a stinging letter: “I am sure you are aware,” Schroeder wrote, “that your reasoning would have kept you from the mess hall a few decades ago.” He needed no reminders, Powell wrote back, “concerning the history of African-Americans in defense of their nation and the tribulations they faced.” Unlike race, which was “immutable and benign,” Powell wrote, gays’ “sexual orientation, perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics,” was inconsistent with the “necessary standards of order and discipline required on the armed forces.” According to Powell, for purposes of military service, the “most profound” human behavioral characteristic was not hard-charging or exemplary service, but sexual orientation. A lot of the moral fuel for the gay claim rested on their analogy to the racial integration of the military. Once the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff rejected the comparison, it simply collapsed.
If Clinton tried to lift the policy ban, Nunn, and Clinton’s foreseeable 1996 presidential opponent, minority leader Bob Dole, threatened they would pass legislation embedding the complete prohibition into a federal statute. Nunn scheduled “hearings.” In May 1993, Nunn took a press road show, with cameras and microphones, into the tight quarters of the USS Baton Rouge, listening to the crew explain why they did not want homosexuals in their shower rooms. By the time the Nunn road show left the dock, Clinton must have been grateful to extract any semblance of a change in the blanket discharges of homosexual human beings. In July, he announced that the United States armed services would change their policy to Moskos’s suggested don’t ask/don’t tell. Recruiters wouldn’t ask and gays would not be pursued. But they would be separated from the service if they engaged in “homosexual conduct,” including statements, which were, weirdly, designated as conduct. Essentially, as before, gays were to remain in the closet. Just in case the gay movement was inclined to ask the executive for more again, Congress enacted the new policy into law. Any further changes would have to come from Congress itself.
Had they been paying attention, the lawyers at Lambda Legal and the feminists at NGLTF and the rich Angelenos at the Clinton rally could have seen the investment of the American military in its heterosexual male identity, which had already manifested itself when women started agitating for gender integration into combat roles at about the same time. The author of don’t ask/don’t tell, Charles Moskos, was also a critic of adding women to the mix, contending in the Washington Post that women’s compassionate natures would be a hindrance to combat service. In 1993, the United States military was defined as a gender hierarchy with heterosexual men on top. The gay movement would find no shortcut to equality through sacrifice. In an article published in the middle of the debate, political scientist John DiIulio and former Air Force Academy faculty member Gerald Garvey explained: “by military cultural definition, a soldier can’t be gay.” Letting gays serve would “change the meaning of who they are.”
The gay military activists had made a category mistake. The strategy for using the military as an entry point into civil equality depends, as did the African American and Japanese American claims, on such valuable characteristics as exemplary service trumping the characteristics that make them different. The strategy of volunteering to die for your country doesn’t work as a civil rights mechanism if the military is a culture for which the minority is ineligible by definition.
Senator Sam Nunn probably wasn’t trying to teach the gay movement a foundational lesson in activism when he took to the Senate floor early in the fight, unleashing a barrage of “questions” intended to paint a picture of uncontrollable—and undesirable—social change. However, Nunn’s litany of doubt is a roadmap to the social change the movement had to accomplish before they could successfully take on the military. “What,” Nunn asked, “would be the impact of changing the current policy on recruiting, retention, morale, discipline, as well as military effectiveness?” “What restrictions should be placed on conduct between members of the same sex,” especially compared to acts allowed between members of the opposite sex? “Should homosexual couples be entitled to the same benefits as legally married couples?” Writing in the New York Times shortly thereafter, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the army, John Marsh Jr., was more explicit: what about the Uniform Code of Military Justice ban on sodomy? The Supreme Court had just ruled six years earlier that the Georgia cops could burst into Michael Hardwick’s bedroom and toss him in the slammer for giving (or getting) a little head. Why shouldn’t the army do the same thing? What did the president propose: to recruit people who would then go directly to the brig?
A quarter century after Stonewall, the gay movement was still in the early stages of gaining any semblance of citizenship in the liberal state. They had no right to be left undisturbed by their government; sodomy was still criminal in half the states and the US military. They had scant equality in self-governance—as Nunn boasted, their “coupled” relationships were not “legal,” like “legally married couples’ ” relationships were. Until they did, instead of dining on the lawn to celebrate the gay emancipation, David Mixner chained himself to the White House fence and was carried off to jail.
What Else Went Wrong: Defending Marriage
At almost the same moment, and without any greater foresight or strategic analysis, the gay movement went after a harder target: marriage. Same-sex marriage guru Evan Wolfson says he embraced the concept of same-sex marriage as a pure intellectual exercise sometime during his years at Harvard Law School in the eighties. What is, he asked himself, “the central social and legal institution in this and any society? Marriage is. In many arenas, like employment where gays are discriminated against, people are just moving their prejudices from the sexual arena into a part of life where they have no place at all. A gay lawyer is a lawyer,” Wolfson says. “But barring them from marriage correctly focuses on the core of what makes them different: their sexual and emotional relationships. Challenging marriage discrimination would challenge the core of gay exclusion,” Wolfson thought. It would be, in Wolfson’s words, “electric.” “Radioactive” would probably be more like it. In 1983, when Wolfson first wrote about his plan in a senior paper at Harvard, all fifty states either defined marriage as between a man and a woman or interpreted their laws as if that were the case. In 2003, after twenty years of campaigning for gay and lesbian couples to marry, no states at all had changed their laws to permit same-sex marriage. Although several states and localities had instituted various arrangements for civil union, many in the gay community regarded these nonmarital alternatives as insulting or at best, segregationist, efforts to buy them off with less than full equality.
Gay intellectual Andrew Sullivan must really have a wonderful family. He came to the cause of same-sex marriage very early—just a few years after Evan Wolfson wrote his law school paper and well before any court had so much as glanced their way—with a stunning cover essay in the New Republic, “Here Comes the Groom,” in 1989. One of his earliest memories of being gay, he says, was the realization that he could not marry and therefore would never be as good as Mom and Dad. When he did finally marry, in Provincetown, in 2007, bringing his family and his spouse’s family together was “one of the happiest times in my life.” Deploying all the skills of a star Oxford debater, Sullivan lays out the case for marriage in “Here Comes the Groom” in terms so simple, they seem ridiculously obvious today. Yet at the same time, it was regarded as almost unthinkable. And the New Republic, where Sullivan was a young writer, was riding a wave of influence among political journals.
Evan Wolfson says that Sullivan’s essay, and later his book, Virtually Normal, made the ideological case for this tectonic social change. “He was one of the earliest and most sustained intellectual advocates for marriage,” Wolfson says. “He has made a really important contribution as an advocate who wrote about the moral and familial dimensions. Very personal and how it’s about restoring wholeness to people’s lives.” In a very Catholic-inflected analysis, Sullivan says that marriage is a vehicle to enable weak humanity to embrace virtue. Why should heterosexuals have a monopoly on the institutions of virtue? In the wilderness years, he and Wolfson traveled, often together, arguing and making their case. “In words,” Sullivan says, “we had to persuade the majority to agree with us. We are so few. We had only argument to use.”
What made marriage so much worth fighting for, in Wolfson’s eyes, was exactly what made it, to his opponents, so worth defending. The centrality of the family in Western culture goes back to antiquity. Indeed, at the beginning of Western political thought in Athens twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle said the same thing Wolfson says about the importance of marriage. Thinking about how politics came about, Aristotle imagined that people, being individuals first, naturally gravitated to families (households) for the sake of material survival, or life, and only thereafter into the state. Rooted in material survival, this version of marriage is, by definition, reproductive and therefore heterosexual. Sullivan made an interesting decision in his marriage advocacy to duck the whole naturalism argument and just point out that nature’s god, so beloved by Aristotle’s medieval interpreter Thomas Aquinas, wasted an awful lot of sperm every time heterosexuals had their naturally procreative intercourse. To say nothing of spontaneous abortion. What a careless deity. “Aquinas was a great thinker,” he says. “If he were alive today he’d be teaching about Darwin. He just used what he had in the thirteenth century.” Like the military, marriage was defined as something for which gay couples were ineligible.
And, like gays serving in the military, gay marriage had been on the table for decades. Right after Stonewall, two activists from Minnesota, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, had sued for the right to marry. Their defeat was the first of countless such rejections, until, finally, interest waned. The revival of militancy in the wake of the insulting opinion in the sodomy case, Bowers v. Hardwick, and the AIDS crisis, gave birth to renewed agitation for marriage equality within the movement. Coming after years of sexual liberation in the gay community, the proposal was hotly controversial. For once, the gay revolution’s claim to moral inclusion and gays’ defense of their own difference dictated conflicting positions. Lambda Legal witnessed a pitched battle between promarriage executive director Tom Stoddard and legal director Paula Ettelbrick, who resisted the suggestion forcefully. “Since when is marriage a path to liberation?” Ettelbrick famously asked.
Sullivan, a believing Catholic and a professed conservative, was a complicated messenger for the cause in those days. All the resistance to the conventional and historically patriarchal aspects of marriage could easily be focused on this most conventional (and therefore unconventional) gay activist. The Lesbian Avengers picketed his book reading in Chicago; people posted head shots of him with targets on them. “I cannot believe we won this battle on marriage and the military in my lifetime,” Sullivan says, combative to this day, “especially since even the gay rights movement opposed this strategy from the get-go and took a decade to reluctantly sign on.”
Marriage godfather Evan Wolfson was marooned in a riven Lambda in 1990 when Bill Woods, the founder of the Hawaii Gay and Lesbian Center, got a phone call from Honolulu lesbian feminist Ninia Baehr. She and her partner Genora Dencel could not name each other beneficiaries of their insurance policies, she complained. Woods responded by suggesting they sue the state. Organized gay activists were unenthusiastic. Reverend Troy Perry would not come over and marry the Hawaii couple. Lambda Legal would not represent them. Neither would the ACLU. Champing at the bit, Wolfson got his bosses at Lambda to let him help out behind the scenes. The trial court dismissed the case.
Three years later, in 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court reversed and Hawaii became the first state in history to rule in favor of same-sex marriage. The ban, the court held, violated the equal-protection clauses of the state constitution. Hawaii is one of the few states whose state constitution explicitly prohibits classification based on sex, the local version of the national Equal Rights Amendment sought by feminists in their prime. The state supreme court found the requirement that men marry only women and vice versa to be an impermissible classification based on sex. The Hawaii court sent the case back to the trial level to see if the state could prove that banning same-sex marriage served a compelling state interest that would justify the inequality.
The opponents of same-sex marriage went ballistic, fearing that two judges on the supreme court of a bunch of islands could impose same-sex marriage in every one of these United States. This was not crazy; the federal Constitution requires that “full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.” States have some leeway to reject a sister state’s proceedings if they violate local public policy, but states usually recognize marriage judgments. That’s why teenagers from Dogpatch could enforce their marriages in the heart of Manhattan and why people used to fly to Nevada for a few weeks and come back divorced. The country was confronted with the prospect of planeloads of homosexuals returning to Utah from Hawaii with suntans and wedding bands. To make matters worse, another couple, not surprisingly, sued for a marriage license in DC.
Just as the marriage case, revived by the state supreme court in 1993, was about to go to trial in Hawaii, the 1996 presidential primary season opened in Iowa. When antigay Texas congressman Phil Gramm tied frontrunner Bob Dole in the Iowa straw poll that winter, Dole returned the donation he had accepted from the gay Log Cabin Republicans. The Republicans began their race to the bottom on gay marriage. That spring, Republican House leader Newt Gingrich pressed Georgia congressman Bob Barr to draft a law forbidding the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages and allowing states to deny them full faith and credit. In May, Barr’s federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) went to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Illinois representative Henry Hyde.
The committee engaged in a stunning set of openly homophobic hearings. Reprising the archaic and discredited notion that all things on earth are created for a purpose rather than the purposeless products of the process of evolution, Aristotelian political philosopher Hadley Arkes told the House Judiciary Committee that “reproduction is the ‘teleology [purpose or end] of the body.’ ” Monogamous reproductive heterosexual families, accordingly, were the product of a purposeful natural order and were, in turn, essential to the political order. Hence, their defense by Congress. South Carolina congressman Robert Inglis exploded at Colorado’s Pat Schroeder, who was opposed to DOMA, informing her that same-sex marriage would destroy the country: “One of the reasons the Republic has survived so well is that for a long time in this country,” Inglis said, “there was a generally accepted view of what is right and wrong. . . . And folks that you associated with for a long time have attempted to now undo that sort of understanding, and that’s part of what’s happening here.”
The report the House of Representatives generated to accompany the bill explains that Congress was acting because the Hawaii state court was about to permit homosexual couples to ‘‘marry.’’ (Each time the Judiciary Committee referred to same-sex unions, it put scare quotes around the word “marriage.”) The legislators were, they said, “tending and nurturing the institution of traditional, heterosexual marriage,” not because they knew how harm would come but because they feared it might. Anyway, same-sex “marriage” cannot be marriage, they reported, because, according to conservative pundit William Bennett, “marriage is [emphasis added] a socially functional coordination of [male and female] . . . different characters, abilities, inclinations.” Representative Inglis needn’t have worried about the Republic. DOMA sailed through Congress, with only sixty-seven representatives and seventeen senators voting against.
When DOMA reached the White House in September 1996, Richard Socarides, who crossed the first pride parade in 1970, was serving as special assistant to the president and senior adviser for public liaison. Socarides says he argued as hard as he could against Clinton’s signing the law, but it was now full campaign season, and campaign guru Harold Ickes did not want to have gay marriage to be an issue in the campaign. Anyway, Socarides said, DOMA was essentially a harmless error, because no one could get married anywhere in the world at that time.
By 2003, all that Wolfson had accomplished with his unremitting labor and the help of every major gay movement institution in America was to motivate a bunch of states and the federal government to enact anti–gay marriage provisions, often most irreversibly, into their state constitutions. Where the law had not said opposite sexes it did. Where the states had routinely recognized the nuptials of other states, however bizarre their content (twelve-year-olds, cousins), they now forbade recognition of unions of the same sex. And the federal government told them it was okay. During the height of the marriage wars, a federal study of the impact listed more than a thousand benefits available to couples with recognized marriages. DOMA barred the members of same-sex unions from them all.
No one would ever accuse Wolfson of carelessness. From the beginning of his crusade to clear the aisles for gay marriage, he had a plan. Wolfson believes it was a battle that had to be fought. The gay movement should not be left alone “in a little huddle” by themselves. He didn’t want them to have their own church or their own relationships. He wanted them to be embraced and accepted. In this positive vision of the gay revolution, being let into the institution of marriage is the “core.” After Hawaii, Wolfson had big winds at his back. The flood of previously closeted conventional individuals who fueled the disastrous military effort also wanted the traditional relationship of marriage. Lesbians, who had ascended to positions of authority in many organizations, had been fighting for family-related rights, like custody of their children from previous marriages, for years. Wolfson, who remained at Lambda, started the Marriage Project, which issued a Marriage Resolution to attract potential allies, gay and not. The ACLU got involved, starting in the Hawaii appeal. After the DOMA battle, the Stonewall-era voices calling for a gay-led liberation of all Americans from patriarchal marriage subsided to a faint hum.
A backlash of this magnitude, however, usually indicates that events got ahead of the canny movement strategists. Since the eruption of the marriage issue, political thinkers have speculated on what it is about marriage that made it so resistant to gay claims. One school of thought is that Wolfson got his wish: marriage directly confronts heterosexuals with the sexual part of homosexuality. And they find it disgusting. Lambda Legal leader Kevin Cathcart calls this response “the ick factor.” Certainly the ick factor goes a long way to explaining why Senator Sam Nunn felt he should bring cameras into the close quarters typical of submarines when fighting the battle against gays in the military. But repugnance should have driven a similar response to the gay campaign for decriminalization of sodomy, which was succeeding brilliantly in the legislatures when the marriage and military battles went so badly awry.
What Went Wrong: Marriage, the Military, and Modernity
The gay revolutionaries could never just take the straight path to formal liberal equality by mimicking the behaviors of the dominant political and social hierarchies. They were different, and their difference was the source of formal social condemnation (it was sinful, and so forth). They had to make the more ambitious claim that, despite their difference, they were good. Unable to mimic their rulers in the crucial arena of their difference, the gay revolution had a harder fight than other movements did even for core political rights of the Enlightenment, asking to have sex in private and not be fired from their jobs. But at least in those arenas they were still making demands on the basic liberal bargain. As Arthur Evans put it so long ago, America was going to have to kill the gays . . . or live up to its democratic principles.
When the gay revolution took after marriage and the military, it was making a bid for membership not just in the cold precincts of the liberal state, but in the club of social acceptance. The exact nature of the club was a moving target, but, in a development little noted at the time, the epidemic of coming out that the real epidemic engendered brought many people with otherwise conventional desires to the movement. They wanted to wear uniforms and carry orange blossoms.
They had their work cut out for them. After Andrew Sullivan visited the AIDS quilt in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, he went to mass, as he did every week, and the priest was preaching a sermon about Jesus and the lepers. “We don’t have plagues now,” the priest announced, “so we just have to think of leprosy as something like cancer.” When Sullivan asked the priest if he was aware of the AIDS epidemic raging all around them, the priest responded that he didn’t think anyone with AIDS would be in the congregation. “And of course,” Sullivan says, “one of the other priests in that very church had AIDS.” As, later, would Sullivan.
In these aspirations, they were asking for inclusion in two of the few institutions, formally run by the government but still heavily rooted outside the liberal state. Unlike the liberal state, marriage was a realm of insecurity and inequality. Until relatively recently, the common law had covered married women with a doctrine that disabled them from owning or managing their own property. There was no such thing as marital rape and domestic abuse was rarely punished. The feminist movement began the process of bringing marriage into the world of democratic principles. The first feminists, the suffragists, pushed for married women’s property rights. The second wave demanded the criminalization of marital rape and the enforcement of battery laws in domestic cases.
At each stage of the women’s long fight to bring some public values into marriage, the opponents invoked gays’ old adversaries—Aristotle and his Christian avatar, Aquinas—arguing this time that nature had made men and women “for” different purposes, male rule was natural and godly, and women belonged in the home. William Bennett, the conservative political pundit whose work figures prominently in the legislative history of DOMA, has been a leading voice opposing feminism’s efforts to break out of the natural marital roles Aristotle prescribed. The battle to bring liberalism and equality to marriage was still raging when Ninia Baehr and Genora Dencel asked the Hawaii court to recognize their union.
In addition, as in the criminal laws governing sex, the state had long deferred to the church where marriage was concerned. Even though the American colonists did not formally assign marriage to the church when they came to the New World, culturally, marriage was largely immune from basic principles like separation of church and state. For centuries in America, churchmen were authorized to perform the state’s function of marrying people. So although it may have seemed a little strange for a witness to testify about Aristotle and Aquinas in Congress in 1996, as Hadley Arkes did, he was actually the mouthpiece for the Catholic Church. And even in 1996, where marriage was concerned, what the church thought mattered to the state. (In a suitable coda to the weirdness of invoking a thirteenth-century thinker on sexual purpose in 1996, Arkes, born a Jew, converted to Catholicism in 2010. It was, he said, the “fulfillment” or natural purpose of his Jewishness.)
The religious underpinnings of the fight over same-sex marriage, however anachronistic, brought out the most resilient horseman of the gay apocalypse—sin. In contemporary political science, sin-inflected issues like gay marriage, drug policy, and abortion have given rise to a whole new category of analysis, morality politics. When issues of morality politics arose, political scientists noted, voters made reference to the very basic principles of their beliefs—things are “right” or “moral,” or “wrong” or “immoral.” They gave little credence to expertise, such as the studies showing that children raised by gay couples do not turn out worse than other children. The lack of deference extended to their elected officials, as voters strongly preferred to decide such matters by direct democracy. In the marriage issue, as in the military initiative, the gay revolution, grounded in moral belief in its own rightness, met a moral opponent.
So, when considering DOMA, Representative Robert Inglis accused his opponent of palling around with people who would ruin the Republic, congressmen argued about concepts of right and wrong dating back to Aristotle, and they paid no attention to the sociologists who told them existing marriage would not suffer from the incursion of gay couples. Although the federal system has no avenues of direct democracy, half the state DOMAs were the product of direct voting at the state level. When the Hawaii trial court finally unburdened itself of its opinion in 1998, seven years after the suit was filed, the Hawaii legislature sent the voters a defense-of-marriage amendment to the state constitution, which passed by 61 percent.
Similarly, the military has historically been located outside the precincts of liberal democracy. The founding principle of modern politics is that people make a government because they want to avoid the dangerous state where every man is a law unto himself and life is nasty, brutish, and short. But the military asks people to risk exactly what modern liberal government is supposed to protect against: a violent death. The military is an institution left over from a premodern era. That’s why soldiers are treated as heroes when they volunteer or risk their lives even when they do not have to do so. They are considered to be doing something extra: a communal or virtuous act way beyond what the democratic government should ask. The Japanese Americans could leapfrog into equal citizenship after their service in World War II: they had done something extra. In exchange for this extra service, the military demands values beyond the distant egalitarianism of modern politics. Soldiers are foxhole friends, best buddies, essential support, back protectors.
Marriage is not the state; it’s a congregation. The military is not the state; it’s a club.
Like the newly rich since time immemorial, the rich gay Democratic donors thought they could buy their way into the congregation and the club. The smart gay lawyers and intellectuals thought they could argue their way in. But that’s not how clubs work.