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The Waning Shadow of Political Cover

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The recent dramatic developments on the same-sex marriage front have put into sharp focus the role that straight allies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community play in our struggle for civil rights.

In several high profile cases, our friends have acted with outstanding courage, and moved the ball forward in ways we could not have done on our own. Their actions have underscored the dramatic potential for rapid social change in our culture and in our politics, but have also set a high standard for others who claim to carry our banner. Our civil rights movement is clearly at a significant watershed, and all of our leaders should be aware that this is a moment for making choices that may be tough, but are also likely to be defining.

It was just one month ago that the majority on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts proved its mettle by reaffirming that its November ruling saying that gay and lesbian couples could not be barred from the institution of civil marriage meant exactly that––and that civil unions or any or “separate” but purportedly equal arrangement would not do. Lifetime appointment of judges gives them intellectual independence, but no one is immune from social and political pressures. The justices’ willingness to stand firm—in the wake of Pres. George W. Bush’s State of the Union demagoguing on the issue and with the prospect of a state legislative constitutional convention the following week exploring the question of overturning the ruling—was breathtaking.

The following week, Gavin Newsom, the newly minted Democratic mayor of San Francisco, set in motion a revolution in political thinking in the U.S. when he announced he would issue same-sex marriage licenses based in authority he and city attorneys found in the California constitution. What at first seemed like it might merely be a political gambit soon became a stirring show of love and commitment on the part of thousands of gay and lesbian couples.

Newsom won kudos from gay people across America, and that will undoubtedly be an assist to his career in San Francisco, but, beyond the ranks of his city government and a few out gay and lesbian elected officials in California, he has largely shouldered the defense of his actions on his own. Most discouragingly, three prominent California Democrats––Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi––have carefully distanced themselves.

Last week, up in Ulster County, a scant 75 northwest of the city, Jason West, a 26-year-old, first term Green Party mayor of the Village of New Paltz also stuck his neck out on our behalf. Without even the support of the city clerk to issue the licenses, West began solemnizing same-sex marriages on Friday, and even after an appearance in court on a 19-count misdemeanor indictment by the district attorney, he pledges to continue presiding over the gay weddings.

Both West and Newsom consulted with LGBT advocacy groups prior to taking their stands––and both were told not to go down this road unless they were willing to stay the course. Whatever the merits of their legal positions and the final outcome of their efforts, we are lucky to have them on our side.

We are also lucky to have Gifford Miller, the speaker of the New York City Council, on our side. Two and a half weeks ago, Larry Moss, an out gay Democratic Party activist, in a Daily News op-ed, offered up the tantalizing argument that same-sex marriages are already legal under New York State law. Though Miller has long advocated same-sex marriage rights, he is expected to run for mayor next year, and some pundits undoubtedly would have cautioned a low profile on this question. Instead, this past Sunday, he appeared on the steps of City Hall to press Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to direct the city clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

The courage shown by Miller, Newsom, and West stands in sharp contrast to a disappointing announcement last week by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee who was endorsed on this page in our last issue. Kerry’s hurdle was lower than that cleared by the other three men. The issue at hand was not whether he would stand up for same-sex marriage, but merely whether he would resist calls for amending the Massachusetts Constitution, a posture he has assumed regarding the U.S. Constitution. But rather than standing strong for the principal of not tinkering with constitutions to deny a class of citizens rights, Kerry caved to fears of a Bush-inspired backlash, endorsing an amendment so long as it simultaneously enacts civil unions.

Joe Dignan, elsewhere in this issue, reports on how the Kerry campaign is now scrambling to assure gay supporters––albeit under the radar––that the candidate’s commitment to civil unions that could include federal recognition is sincere.

Turnout among key Democratic constituencies will be key to hopes for a Kerry win this November. The senator may wish to touch base with Gavin Newsom, Jason West, or Gifford Miller to pick up some tips on how to show true commitment to a gay community eager for genuinely fresh leadership in the White House.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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