Sir Elton Gets Equality
by E.J. Graff
© December 21, 2005, E.J. Graff
Today, Elton John makes an honest man of his longtime love David Furnish. After a dozen years together, the happy couple will celebrate their commitment in two parts: first with a private civil ceremony in Windsor Guildhall, the venue used recently by the Prince of Wales, and then with a blowout party at his mansion nearby, complete with vintage pink champagne and a star-studded 700-person guest list.
Americans may still be making uneasy jokes about gay cowboys, but it’s same-sex wedding time in the UK. More than 1,200 couples are scheduled to plight their troth this week alone in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. They can’t legally use the sacred M-word: Tony Blair’s Labor Party wasn’t willing to go quite as far as the wild and crazy nations of Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, and South Africa, all of which have fully gender-neutral marriage laws (or, in South Africa’s case, soon will). But with the long-awaited implementation of its Civil Partnership Act , passed in 2004, Britain is finally catching up to the rest of the ex-Commonwealth and to its Western European neighbors. Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland all recognize same-sex pairs more or less comprehensively under some word other than “marriage.” Even Croatia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic have recently moved forward on same-sex partnership laws, albeit with recognitions so minimal that local gay and lesbian groups are in a huff. And yet those disgruntled Slovenian same-sex couples still have fuller legal recognition than do their counterparts in the United States.
Here’s the news: The U.S. is becoming steadily more isolated in its official rejection of lesbians and gay men. Our government lags in the back of the class with such nations as Greece, Italy, Ireland, Poland, and Latvia — the last of which this week became the only European nation to pass a one-man-one-woman marriage law like the ones passed by the U.S. Congress and 40 American states. In fact, according to the Sunday Times of London, an international gay travel group recently issued an advisory to what Brits call their “pink” honeymooners, warning them to “avoid open displays of affection when traveling to homophobic hotspots” like the Middle East, Russia, Jamaica, and the American Bible Belt. Doesn’t being in that list make you feel all warm and proud of your country?
The U.S. is out of step in another way as well. Elsewhere in the world, center-left and center-right parties take relatively consistent and predictable stands on women’s and gay rights. From India to Israel to England, center-left parties support gay and lesbian rights and women’s rights as human rights that are essential to a decent nation and a responsible world. Meanwhile, center-right and religious parties around the globe depict women’s rights and LGBT rights as dangerous to nature, tradition, capitalism and God.
But here in the States, while Republicans stand relatively firm against the twin threats of gay rights and women’s reproductive rights, Democrats instead run away from those subjects like squealing middle-schoolers, desperately trying to change the subject to “real” political topics like wages and invasions. And how’s that been working out for the Democrats?
Badly, in case you’ve missed the results of recent elections. Here’s why. For most people, love, marriage, and family (and I’m including the extended friends-as-family here) are at the very center of their lives. That’s true whether they’re single, married, divorced, widowed; whether they’re close to or alienated from their children, parents, siblings, or in-laws; whether they believe that true love is egalitarian or that the man should be the head of the household. Those feelings about marriage and family affect how they think about national and international issues as well. Why earn a living, or why support or oppose the invasion of another country, unless it’s to care for and protect those you love?
Voters won’t trust politicians to protect their personal, national, and international interests if those politicians can’t speak coherently about the value of love, marriage, and family — and how it fits in with their vision of citizenship. Republicans get this. Democrats — unlike center-left politicians in other developed democracies — do not.
Consider the center-left rhetoric from two countries that most recently got it right: Canada and Spain, two extremely different nations, with two extremely different political and religious cultures, both of whose parliaments this year voted in favor of equal marriage laws. Canada first, since it’s our northern neighbor. This past July, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin wouldn’t let his members of parliament go home for their summer holiday until they passed a same-sex marriage bill. Despite American progressives’ image of Canada as a nearly perfect (if internationally irrelevant) society, Martin faced serious opposition. Canadian opinion on same-sex marriage, then and now, wavered around the 50-50 line. (In the U.S., while far fewer support equal marriage rights, roughly 60 percent support either marriage or civil unions.) Some of Martin’s cabinet ministers resigned rather than vote with him to gender-neutralize the federal marriage law. The highly influential Catholic Church used its heavy ammo; one MP was refused communion, another was asked to step down from his church involvements, and at least one bishop suggested excommunicating Martin, who is Catholic.
The PM could have left the issues to the courts, which had already gender-neutralized marriage in most of Canada, and were clearly going to continue to do so in the holdout jurisdictions. That was his first impulse, explained Douglas Elliott, a Canadian human rights lawyer who argued one of the winning marriage lawsuits. Martin “was a bit queasy about the issue of same-sex marriage,” Elliott said. “But then he discovered that once he framed it in the context of the traditional support of his party for the underdog, for human rights, and for equality, then he was able to gain broader political advantage. He was able to portray his opponent as someone who could not be trusted to protect the constitutional rights of all.”
That’s why Martin insisted on a public marriage vote that would underscore the nation’s commitment to equality for all: because he was gambling that it would (and it did) win him the next election. Here’s the rhetoric he used: Why? “We are a nation of minorities,” he said, “and in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don’t cherry pick rights. A right is a right.” Study this closely. It’s not just about minority rights; it’s about defining citizenship, nationhood, and international security as respect, belonging, and multilateralism. It’s saying that your family is not safe unless all families are safe — inside and outside of your borders.
Minister of Defense Bill Graham put it this way when talking to Muslim constituents who were extremely opposed: “by protecting the rights of everybody, we are protecting your rights.” In late June, Canadian minister of justice Martin Cauchon explained to a group of international human rights lawyers why it had been worth risking his seat to work on behalf of equal marriage rights: “I want to live in a Canada where all people are Canadians and all people are equal.” If you can’t marry, you’re not a full citizen; if some people are not full citizens, then no one is a full citizen, and citizenship itself is insecure.
In other words, the Canadian Liberal Party heightened the same-sex marriage debate into a debate about what it means to be good neighbors in a vast and varied nation. The Liberal Party didn’t gallop to the defense of LGBT families. Rather, they wrapped themselves in the Canadian flag — and argued that the Conservatives weren’t real Canadians at all. Martin “was able to effectively appeal to women by suggesting that if [his opponent] was against equal marriage for same-sex couples, what’s next, would he take away the right to choose? It’s a trust issue,” Elliott said. “He was able to create a feeling of unease about his opponent that made the difference between him winning and losing the election.” Because if a politician cannot be trusted to explain how every family fits in with the nation, how can he or she be trusted with that nation?
In Spain, opening marriage to same-sex pairs was an easier sell. Spanish progressives will quickly tell you that because Spain’s Roman Catholic Church was in bed with the Franco regime, its moral credibility is a little less than nil. For years polling has shown that 60-to-70 percent of the nation favored gender-neutralizing the marriage laws. More than half Spain’s states and autonomous regions already had civil unions; the left-leaning parties have been submitting same-sex marriage bills for years, bills that were suppressed by the right wing government.
Nevertheless, the fact that Prime Minister Zapatero chose the equal-marriage law as his signature issue, pushing it as his first bill after he became president, tells you how important his left-leaning government believed the issue was to its interpretation of citizenship and nationhood. (I’m using the term “equal marriage” because it not only gender-neutralized marriage’s entrance rules but also made husbands and wives more fully equal, on the understanding that egalitarian marriage and same-sex marriage are the same issue.) Consider these excerpts from the speech he made on the marriage bill’s passage:
“We are not legislating, honorable members, for people far away and not known by us. We are enlarging the opportunity for happiness to our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and, our families: at the same time we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members… . Today the Spanish society grants them the respect they deserve, recognizes their rights, restores their dignity, affirms their identity, and restores their liberty.”
Zapatero and his party, in other words, understand that the same-sex marriage discussion was about happiness, individual identity, national belonging, dignity, liberty and the nature of a decent society. These are not fringe issues; these are questions that stand at the very core of a serious liberal/progressive agenda. Why are U.S. Democrats, liberals, and progressives so intimidated by Republican moral demagoguery that they’re missing this essential link?
Voters everywhere recognize that the marriage and family debates — same-sex marriage, reproductive rights and so on — are debates over life’s meaning, and over the meaning of a good society. By failing to engage, except peripherally or through the coward’s approach of terrified polling, the Democrats and the American secular punditocracy have been appallingly guilty of neglect. You may not be gay, but that doesn’t mean same-sex marriage is a marginal issue. You may not be a woman, but that doesn’t mean reproductive rights or equal pay for equal work are any less important than exit strategies in Iraq. In fact, these are inextricably linked. Rights. Dignity. Liberty. Belonging. Nationhood. These are the large ideas worth fighting for — and worth voting for. How can we take back our country, except by talking about respect for each others’ lives?
Even — maybe especially — Elton John’s.
© 2005, E.J. Graff
E.J. Graff, a Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center resident scholar, most
recently collaborated on Evelyn Murphy’s book “Getting Even: Why Women Still
Don’t Get Paid Like Men — And What To Do About It” (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Her first book was “What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History
of Our Most Intimate Institution” (Beacon Press, 1999, 2004).
This article was first published by tompaine.com on December 21, 2005.
Reprinted with permission.