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The NY Gay Marriage Bill and Its Place in Modern Activism

I cannot prevent anyone from getting angry, or mad, or frustrated. I can only hope that they’ll turn that anger and frustration and madness into something positive, so that two, three, four, five hundred will step forward, so the gay doctors will come out, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects … I hope that every professional gay will say ‘enough’, come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help.

-Harvey Milk, 1978

History is about contextualization.  Done properly, it looks forward and backward.  A proper historian not only focuses on an event, but discusses what that event meant in terms of following or changing a precedent, or standing in as its own precedent for future events.   It is impossible to think about the ratification of the New York Gay Marriage Bill, which will finallyallow homosexual Americans to marry within the state’s borders, without thinking about where it came from or where it is going to take us.

As I lay writing (yes, a Faulkner reference), I cannot help but be mournful and excited.  I am mournful about where this came from—the deaths of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, the history of repressing sexuality that characterizes many households, and the closet doors that have been used just as much to hide homosexuals as to confirm an erroneous conception of American individualism and liberty.  Let me be frank about this last point: it is my conviction that pushing people behind closet-doors has a lot more to do with a pathological desire to confirm the normal than with the concealment of the “aberrant.”  But I am also hopeful.  I hope that this initiative will catch on, and the number of states allowing same-sex marriage will soon increase from the current six (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Vermont, and New York).

Some, however, would regard my hope as a “joke.”  Such a sentiment was expressed by Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage.  When asked about the notion that the ratification of the NY bill would add to the momentum for the gay rights movement in the U.S., he dismissed it as a joke.  He then cited the gay-marriage bans that currently hold in several states.  I think he is wrong.  Historical and legal events are not simply contained, as Brown seems to insist.  Instead, they filter out into the broader national consciousness; put simply, something like this must have a ripple effect.  This can be backed up with one of my favorite activities: flipping through the newspapers to see what kinds of articles are being run, and what they are discussing.  On June 27th (today), The New York Times published articles that were noticeably not only about gay marriage in New York, but about the possibility of a same-sex marriage movement in San Francisco and Atlanta.[1] To be sure, the coverage is not always positive, as demonstrated by the recognition in Atlanta of the “distance” between the social values obtaining in Atlanta and in New York.  But we could easily take a lesson from Milk here (see the epigraph), and see that visibility IS part of the struggle.  What matter is not so much that all states are not ready to support same-sex marriage, but that a major newspaper like the NYT thought a story on Atlanta’s stance on the marriage bill would draw national interest.  To put this somewhat differently, contextualizing a city like Atlanta or San Francisco is perhaps a move in the right direction, because it disavows the right of regional ideologies to remain implicit.  Religious fundamentalists, once asked to rationalize hatred for homosexuals, often find themselves at a loss for words and, in appealing to biblical law, find themselves making arguments that have less and less traction in American politics.

Milk’s statement that “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door” was more than a poetic flourish, made even more resonant by his assassination in the late 1970s.  It is a call to us to retrace a national history of the gay activist movement.  We need to connect events like the ratification of NY’s same-sex marriage bill with events like Milk’s election; though ostensibly about different issues (one, the right of gay couples to marry and, the other, the ability of homosexuals to win in a public campaign), both do seem to point towards a new age of American individualism, when sexuality is marked as irrelevant within the public sphere where, perhaps ironically, private rights reside.

To conclude, I will return to Brian Brown’s contention that the possibility of NY’s recent bill adding to the gay-rights movement is a “joke.”  It’s a rather funny remark actually, and behind it is a host of untapped anxieties and worries.  It also ignores quite a bit about what has actually happened: Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg, Christine Quinn, and others have pushed through an ambitious piece of legislation in one of the most populous states in the country.[2] Though it may not lead to immediate historical change, it seems like the claim that the event is historically irrelevant is wholly untenable.


[1] See “After Gay Marriage Vote, a Celebration in San Francisco, but Bittersweet,” by Jesse McKinley, and “Atlanta Closer in Distance than in Philosophy on Gay Marriage,” by Kim Severson.

[2] Interested in reading more?  I particularly recommend John Leland’s “Thousands Cheer Same-Sex Marriage Law in Euphoric Pride Parade,” <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/nyregion/at-gay-pride-parade-cuomo-is-center-of-attention.html?ref=samesexmarriage>; Nicholas Confessore’s “For Gay Marriage Movement, Momentum but Challenges,” <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/nyregion/for-gay-marriage-movement-momentum-but-challenges.html?ref=samesexmarriage>; Michael Barbaro’s “Road to Gay Marriage in New York,” <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/nyregion/the-road-to-gay-marriage-in-new-york.html?ref=samesexmarriage


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