These Pictures Are Worth 1000 Vows

26 February 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Conservatives were delighted this fall when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) ruled it unconstitutional to refuse full marriage rights to same-sex couples, thrusting the marriage issue to the forefront of the national consciousness. While they've been disappointed by President Bush's failure to speak out loudly enough in favor of the proposed Constitutional amendment that would bar same-sex marriage, they have reason to believe that the eruption of this issue just before an election is to the right's advantage. While Americans have been growing more tolerant of homosexuality over the years and look likely to continue doing so, at the moment a slim majority still opposes same-sex marriage. If social conservatives want to write their opinion into the Constitution, this is their last chance.

Enter Gavin Newsom, the newly elected mayor of San Francisco. Newsom recently began an act of civil disobedience, defying California's recently enacted straights-only marriage law to hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The city's courthouses have been swamped by the hosts of couples looking to finally have their unions legally recognized.

At first blush, Newsom's act, while a short-term gain for gay rights, plays into conservatives' hands. One of the key arguments made against same-sex marriage is the charge of judicial activism -- that elitist judges are circumventing the will of the people. The beauty of this argument is that it shifts attention to a procedural issue rather than a substantive one, and one that's not without merit -- I would have much preferred that same-sex marriage came about through a bill in the Massachusetts legislature, rather than an SJC ruling. Newsom justifies his decision with an SJC-like argument that California's marriage law is unconstitutional. The perception that he's flouting the will of the people to put his own opinions into practice will bolster the anti-same-sex marriage side.

The"undemocratic" charge links into a longstanding conservative talking point that both criticizes the judiciary by painting liberal rulings as outside their authority, as well as frames liberalism as an elitist creed. This theme will be especially strong this year because presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (who represents the gay-loving state of Massachusetts) is particularly vulnerable to the charge of being out of touch with, and even disdainful of, regular people.

Now look at the photos that have appeared in the news about the San Francisco marriages. Most are of couples, generally middle-aged, embracing one another and weeping with relief at being finally granted the right to marry. They powerfully humanize the issue. These are not the flamboyant drag queens that (unfortunately) give middle America the heebie-jeebies. They look like what Chicago mayor Richard Daley called"your doctors, your lawyers, your journalists." Significantly, the most prominent photos (such as those of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the first couple to get married) have focused on lesbians, who seem less threatening to Americans' sense of gender than gay men.

Contrast that with the photos of the opposition. Jason Storms of the conservative Christian group Repent America has been featured leading anti-same- sex marriage rallies. Storms has a goatee and spiky black hair, and wears a shirt with the word"Homo" crossed out like in a no smoking sign. Other protesters hold signs with fireand-brimstone Bible verses -- not the most welcoming or well- respected face of Christianity.

This is a reversal of the framing that social conservatives have been pushing. On the side of same-sex marriage, they would place bands of activists pushing an extremist"homosexual agenda," wearing outlandish clothes and hairstyles that suggest disrespect not just for the traditional definition of marriage, but for all our cultural standards. On the side of opposite-sex-only marriage, conservatives give us a picture of an ideal family with a caring mom and dad and their biological children. When it's comforting normal Americans versus crazy radicals, public opinion likes to side with the former.

These photos help to reframe the debate in a way that advantages the movement for same-sex marriage. On one side are people just like the rest of us, wanting a simple legal recognition of their commitment to be a family. They wait patiently in line, then celebrate when at long last they get to participate in one of our culture's happiest institutions. On the other side are angry ideologues, protesting and haranguing.

Of course every couple deserves the same right to marry regardless of whether they prefer to wear leather thongs or pearl necklaces, and Storms's view is invalidated by logic, not by his threatening appearance. But cultural issues are profoundly emotional, so it's hard to complain when the debate is framed in a way that draws sympathy to the good guys.

The images that have appeared in our newspapers and on our TVs may be Newsom's most important contribution to the struggle over gay rights, especially if California's courts invalidate the marriage licenses that have been handed out. His actions violated the majority will, but they also have the potential to change that will.

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