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For gays, cheers and doubts about marriage

By Charles Kaiser, Special to CNN
  • Charles Kaiser: The morning after gay marriage passed, there were two questions
  • Why did it take so long for New York, home of gay liberation, to pass it?
  • Why were gay activists so eager to embrace marriage?
  • He says he was joyful to see justice triumph over bigotry

Editor's note: Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 In America" and "The Gay Metropolis," a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and a former press critic for Newsweek.

New York (CNN) -- There were boisterous celebrations in the streets of Greenwich Village in Manhattan on Friday night, after the New York state Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo rushed to sign the new measure into law just a few minutes later.

The next day there were two central questions reverberating within the gay community.

The first one was, why did it take New York -- of all places -- so long to extend this basic right to all of its citizens? New York City had been de facto gay capital of the world for more than four decades, ever since the patrons of the Stonewall Inn sparked the birth of the modern gay movement by rioting after an early morning police raid on that Greenwich Village establishment in 1969.

The answer turned out to be that it took a highly effective and deeply committed governor like Andrew Cuomo to focus the clout of a huge but disparate gay establishment to finally vanquish the entrenched opposition of the Catholic Church and its conservative allies.

As Michael Barbaro reported in a revealing story in The New York Times, the elements Cuomo brought together included "super-rich Republican donors," like billionaire Paul Singer, whose son happens to be gay; five formerly rivalrous gay organizations, which Cuomo merged into a single coalition; the gay nephew of the companion of a Democratic state senator, who had previously been an implacable foe of marriage equality; and the field operation of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, which deluged another Democratic opponent of the law with mail after he had told the governor that "the numbers weren't there" for gay marriage.

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Why had gay activists been so eager to embrace this quintessentially heterosexual institution?
--Charles Kaiser

The result was an outcome cheered by progressive leaders of all sexual orientations. "I think this is a basic issue of human dignity and equality," Steven R. Shapiro, the longtime legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. "People may now make different choices about whether they choose to get married. But it is their choice and not the government's -- as it always should have been."

The other question echoing within the gay community was a little more surprising: Why had gay activists been so eager to embrace this quintessentially heterosexual institution?

Bryan Lowder, a 23-year-old journalism student at New York University, had just completed the annual "Drag March" of all kinds of cross-dressers with his partner of two years, Cam McDonald, when they encountered the celebration of the new law outside the Stonewall Inn, which occupies the same space in Sheridan Square as the predecessor establishment of the same name.

"I felt pretty ambivalent, I have to say," said Lowder. "It's definitely not something I'm unhappy about." But he wondered about the appropriateness of only extending new rights to gay people who embraced the specific model of heterosexual marriage. "Of course there are many other kinds of relationships, especially within queer culture, whether it's open relationships or nonsexual companionship or polyamorous relationships. These nontraditional relationships have been championed in the gay community in the past, and I do think all types of relationships should be honored, and not just the people who fit this model."

Lowder's 29-year-old partner shared all of his ambivalence. "I suppose I do think the right to marry should exist," said McDonald. "Which is not the same thing as saying that I'm interested in exercising it. I'm not sure it threatens our identity -- that there's actually a danger that we're going to stop being different. I think that will persist. But I think it's a little sad that what we've devoted ourselves to here is, at its core, about transfers of wealth and property."

New York jazz singer Judy Barnett got "civilly unioned" to her partner Cydney Savage in New Jersey last January. "But now we're going to come to New York and get married too, because I'm a New Yorker and I want a New York marriage license," said Barnett.

"Why shouldn't gay people get to have the same 50/50 track record as straight people?" she continued. "I think the most important reason to do it is to benefit from the federal perks eventually" -- but that will depend on getting the federal Defense of Marriage Act repealed, or thrown out by a federal court.

Frank Kameny is the 86-year-old father of the modern gay movement in America, the inventor of the phrase "gay is good," and one of the chief strategists who convinced the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973.

On Friday night Kameny was riveted to "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, which stayed on the air an extra hour to broadcast the vote in the New York Senate -- and he felt "very celebratory."

"Keep in mind that the opposition has put an enormous amount of energy into opposing this," Kameny told me. "That's one of the reasons it became such an important issue to us."

Matt Coles ran the gay rights project for the ACLU for 15 years before becoming its deputy national legal director -- and he married his partner, David Ma, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2004. Coles said the debate was no longer about whether gay people should or should not get married.

"What this fight is about is, are we and our relationships the same or as good as the relationships of heterosexuals?"

"You don't have to want to get married," said Coles. "This is about whether we are equal citizens."

I myself have never believed that marriage was such a magnificent institution that all gay people should be encouraged to embrace it. To me, being queer has always been about celebrating everything which makes us different.

But this weekend I shared in the joy I always feel whenever justice finally triumphs over bigotry.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles Kaiser.

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