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Gay Marriage: We Can Win

By Wayne Besen

There is a real fear, if not loathing, throughout GLBT America over the fight for same-sex marriage rights. As I travel across the country on my 55-city book tour, most people I have encountered wish this issue would simply disappear.

The most common refrain: "why do our political leaders focus on this tumultuous issue when we haven't passed less controversial legislation?"

People who share this line of thinking seem to buy the right wing myth that a couple of radical gay potentates in Washington literally craft a gay agenda. It doesn't work that way. Our movement is more like an octopus with each tentacle representing a specific grievance that needs to be ameliorated. Sure, there is a head, representing the national groups, but the tentacles have a way of moving uncontrollably in all directions.

The head might decide, based on public opinion polls, that passing hate crime laws should be our movement's number one priority. But this is not going to be the main agenda item for everyone in our community, and therefore the aggrieved tentacles will take the movement directions not anticipated or necessarily popular.

Look at it this way. During the Civil Rights era there may have been many items that polled better than desegregating busses. But Rosa Parks wanted to ride the bus and she wasn't going to be told to ride in the back until water fountains could be desegregated.

It is the same for our movement. For the gay service member afraid to lose his or her career, overturning Don't Ask/Don't Tell is the number one priority. The gay couple faced with a mortality issue and greedy relatives hovering in the wings, inheratence rights are issue number one. The couple in Florida forbidden to adopt children may see eliminating this discriminatory obstacle as the most worthy goal of our movement.

This same theory can be applied to the looming marriage war. Four events - not the decision of all-powerful activists - have catapulted marriage to THE forefront of the national stage. First, Vermont enacted its civil unions law. Second, marriage of same-sex couples has become a reality in Canada. Third, the Massachusetts Supreme Court may rule in favor of same-sex couples who say denying them the right to marry is discriminatory. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional, terrifying conservatives who fear that the judiciary may eventually rule in favor of marrying same-sex couples.

For better or worse, the nuclear culture war over gay marriage is here. We have a clear choice: We can wince or we can win.

The first thing we must do is stop dreading this war. We have had a long grace period where our movement has made great cultural strides with limited struggle. But did we really think episodes of Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy alone were going to carry us to the Promised Land?

Instead of dread, we should see this struggle as an unprecedented opportunity to educate America about our lives. For centuries our families have had to remain deeply closeted, sometimes masquerading as sisters, brothers, roommates or friends. We finally have our big chance to stand tall and show the world our beautiful, healthy, strong and stable families.

Let us parade couples in the media that have been together for 40 years. Let us hear the testimonies from adult children raised by gay families with the strong message: "Stop attacking our families." We need to show the American people the horror of long-term couples denied hospital visitation rights.

There is a real fear of a backlash among the GLBT people I have spoken to. But it is important to remember that there are two kinds of backlash. The first represents a genuine setback where Americans violently reject your message. The second is a phantom backlash, where the right wing goes ballistic, yet the majority of Americans remain unmoved by their diatribes.

If we are afraid of our shadow and tepidly defend our right to marry, a harmful backlash may become a self-fulfilling prophecy - because we will have failed to educate the people. But if we wake up and realize that we are in a historic moment and can guide our destiny, we will win this fight.

The Human Rights Campaign just launched a million dollar educational campaign to beat back right wing attempts to pass a constitutional Amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. This is a wonderful start. However, I would advise all of the national, state, and local groups to focus on rallying the GLBT troops over the next few months. The message: We no longer have the luxury of debating whether our movement should focus on legalizing same-sex marriage - the future is here and it is now.
Wayne Besen is the author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth ; Harrington Park Press; 2003, 242 pages; $39.95.
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