“I think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
At a fundraising event tonight, the intrepid Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, quoted those words of Holmes. In doing so he reminded us all that we are the sum of our actions, and the marks we leave on the world are all that the ages will have to judge us upon.
Just 10 months into his job, Mayor Newsom is fundraising, not because he’s preparing for a new campaign, but because he has debt left over from the tough fight he faced getting to City Hall last year. Normally for an incumbent politician, retiring campaign debt is an easy thing. But as Mayor Newsom pointed out, among large swaths of the Democratic Party, he is persona non grata.
Because he dared act on his belief that to mouth the words of equality might be bold, but to fail to act upon them is unforgivable. So, he took a stand and allowed gays and lesbians to be issued marriage licenses in the Spring of 2004, including your humble author and my partner of over 9 years… and now husband of nearly 9 months (a California Supreme Court judgment of nullification notwithstanding).
And for standing on principle, Newsom is being shunned by some for committing the unpardonable sin of taking action at a time when the lily-livered and mealy-mouthed “leaders” of the Democratic Party felt it would be more least convenient to stick to principle.
Believe me, when it’s time to raise money and get out the vote, Democrats are good at kissing gay and lesbian ass. Many in the Democratic Party are quick to tout their long-held support for gay and lesbian equal rights, and some do indeed have impressive records of support.
But in this day when Liberals are as deep in the closet as many of our queer brethren and sisteren, more than a few Democratic politicians will shoot you a pained “queer eye” and start looking for the door when you have the temerity to begin asking for concrete examples of their support for the day-to-day ways in which gays and lesbians are denied equal rights and equal protection of the laws. At the macro level, they are very supportive, but when tough questions arise like marriage, adoption, and *gasp* joint tax filing, suddenly them uppity queers need to remember their place!
To the best of my recollection, only one Democratic Presidential candidate actually stood on principle and supported gay marriage. That candidate? The Rev. Al Sharpton. I remember being dumbfounded at the simple clarity and evident passion with which he spoke about the issue in a radio broadcast from the Commonwealth Club on December 11, 2003.
In response to an audience question about whether the Democratic Party takes minority votes for granted, Rev. Sharpton zoomed right in on the party’s wishy-washy stance on gay marriage as a perfect example:
“I spoke at the candidates forum at the human rights group in Washington, and the issue was gay and lesbian marriages. I started hearing strange stuff like, ‘I’m for civil unions, not marriage.’ That’s like, ‘I’m for shacking up, not marriage.’ We want people to be firm for us while we are equivocating for them, and that is bad. Blacks and Latinos and gays and lesbians cannot be treated any more as the mistresses of the party, where they have fun and party with us but won’t take us home to Momma and Daddy. Either we’re going to get married in 2004, or we’re going to find somebody who’s willing to be seen with us, night and day.”
And if that wasn’t plain enough, the next questioner asked Sharpton specifically what his position was on gay marriage:
“It’s a human rights question. People ask: ‘Do you agree with gay and lesbian marriage?’ I say that’s like asking, ‘Do I agree with Latino marriage or black marriage?’ If we are not prepared to say that gays and lesbians are less than human, then why do they have to qualify under any other circumstances than any other person in the human family to decide who they want to marry? It’s a human rights question; you cannot deny them that right without saying you see them as less than human. If you have personal or religious views, you have the right to exercise that in your personal life. You do not have the right to deny someone else the legal options of any other human being in this country.”
My partner and I are two of those whom the Democratic Party, as Rev. Sharpton so aptly put it, would hesitate to take “home to Momma and Daddy.” As such, I can tell you that any politician who cavalierly plays semantic games with my civil rights will deserve whatever electoral doom befalls them. Indeed, if there’s one lesson that’s becoming exceedingly clear from the 2004 election debacle, it’s that John Kerry’s namby-pamby position on gay marriage didn’t win him a single damn vote, and certainly made my vote for him more than a little tinged with pain.
If gay marriage was a decisive issue for a voter, John Kerry was never going to get that vote. Those hard-core bigots would never trust John Kerry to keep queers in line like a good ‘ol boy from Texas (even one who came to Texas by way of Connecticut, Maine, Yale, and the cheerleading squad at Phillips Andover…)
So why play semantic games like, “I’m for civil unions but not marriage?” Because it leaves an opening for the softer side of anti-gay bigotry, letting self-deluded, so-called “progressives” feel they were throwing gay people a bone while not letting themselves get creeped out by thoughts of bearded fags in long white dresses.
Oh, what I wouldn’t have given to have heard our party’s candidate say what Rev. Sharpton said. Of course, what Jon Stewart once said of Sharpton is true: “When you know you’ve got no chance to be elected, it frees you up to speak your mind.”
Indeed. And what better way to show yourself to be more human than to speak from your heart when you’re facing a robotic president like George W. Bush, who faithfully sticks to his pre-programmed lines.
There’s a great scene in the television series Babylon 5, in which the newly crowned emperor of a stuffy, collapsing alien empire is handed a speech. His aide assures him that it was crafted with input from the best psycho-linguists to ensure that every word plucks the most base, crass, and jingoistic heart-strings of every listener, exhorting them to action.
Listening to a George W. Bush speech, one cannot help but hear the Rovian/Orwellian imagery filled with verbal secret handshakes to the evangelicals. When faced with such engineered, mechanically spun, ultra-polymerized baloney, it’s not impossible to believe that a genuinely passionate speaker could actually cause Bush’s head to implode through the sheer weight of sincerity.
There are some in the Democratic Party who blame Mayor Gavin Newsom for, in part, bringing the gay marriage issue to a head at precisely the time when it was least convenient, least palatable, and least defensible. Those Democrats who think so should go Cheney themselves. Mayor Newsom was calling Democrats to come back to the principles they claim to espouse but clearly can’t stomach. Democrats who shun Newsom should be ashamed of themselves.
President Kennedy once famously paraphrased The Divine Comedy, saying: “Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Mayor Newsom was taking a side at precisely the time when all the spineless creatures inhabiting the Democratic Party leadership counseled neutrality.
Newsom may have imperiled his future as a leader in the Democratic Party by standing up for principle – and in doing so, standing up for my husband and me. But if such is the case, then the Democratic Party is no longer a place for people of principle. Luckily, I don’t believe that the Democratic Party is that far “gone.” But I’m not feeling overwhelmed with evidence to the contrary at this moment.