Forty-odd years ago America embarked on an effort to make itself a socially inclusive society. The struggle for racial equality will always be one of our major national events. The Special Olympics and special education came into being, as did the recognition that the physically disabled were human, too. Many Americans don’t remember a time when all the curb cuts (beloved by cyclists among others) we see everywhere did not exist. Until the 1970s, however, people in wheelchairs simply could not go anywhere on their own.
The recent defeat in the Massachusetts legislature of a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is part of that historical process. Americans are deeply disposed to moving forward and being open to enlightenment. We pride ourselves on overcoming the condition so memorably described in the musical South Pacific. “You have to be carefully taught—by the time you’re six, or seven or eight—to hate all the people your relatives hate.” There will be gradual acceptance of gay rights.
Promoting civil rights for a group toward which the general population is defensively hostile is different from promoting progress for the physically handicapped or special-needs children. It challenges established beliefs and triggers fear. Decades ago there was no shortage of whites who complained that the country would go to hell if they had to share lunch counters with blacks.
Being gay involves sex, so it upsets people at a basic level. Interestingly, however, the sweep of feminist achievements—education, economic independence, the freeing of men from onerous roles of unwanted authority—has been far more disruptive (in a positive sense) to society than gay marriage ever will be. Everyone has been affected by it, and gays are miniscule in number compared to women.
“Protecting marriage” is a ludicrous expression—as if straight couples were in danger of being denied opportunity to marry. Nature, or God, depending on one’s beliefs, has arranged it so that the overwhelming preponderance of human beings born will be heterosexual. There will be a continuing flow of jewelry, low-cut dresses, muscle cars, music, moonlight and countless other spurs to physical attraction, all for the goal of creating new babies. But not every household contributes to the creation of new life. An adult may live with an elderly parent. Siblings or childless couples may live together. None pose any threat to marriage.
I recently saw a huge display in the lobby of a major financial institution’s building. “Celebrate Pride!” it said. “National Pride Month. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The prominence of that sign in that place signifies that people are increasingly ready to accept that being gay is a vicissitude of humanity, and that satisfaction of human needs should trump conventional prescriptions for social order and legal sanction.
The gay movement actually began in the sixties. It is part of our inheritance of the unimpeachable gospel of that cataclysmic time: peace, love and understanding.