If Rhode Island were to legalize gay marriage, it might make a ripple but with scarcely one million residents, a paucity of religious fanatics and a sterling tradition of religious tolerance starting with founder Roger Williams, the fuss over it would die off pretty quickly. Nevertheless, RI has not yet done so. With Massachusetts on our border, I believe that it's only a matter of time, particularly since our attorney general, Patrick C. Lynch, broke legal ground in 1987 by issuing a legal opinion recognizing as valid same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts.
Then there's California. Approximately 38,000,000 people live there; they comprise over 12.5% of America's population 303,824,646 (2008 est.) Now the California Supreme Court has ruled that gays and lesbians can marry. As the saying goes, when California speaks, people listen. A social earthquake there sends shock waves across the country. You can be sure that the lunatic fringe will be militant and armed, ready to force people back into the closet but how effective will they be against the rising tide?
In the eighties, I was involved in the gay and lesbian movement in California, organizing for changes in the law to end employment discrimination. Working with then state representative Art Agnos who sponsored AB-1, we succeeded in getting the bill approved by both houses of the legislature, only to have it vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian: He said that there was no evidence of discrimination against gays and lesbians. It was a tough loss. We started the documentation project intended to collect evidence of discrimination so that he could not use that weak excuse again.
Then AIDS exploded on the scene. One of the leaders of the lesbigay movement, Clive Jones, created the first AIDS quilt and the movement took a turn as thousands of gay men lost their lives before the "cocktail" came into use that turned it into a chronic disease rather than one that killed all it touched.
Before President Bill Clinton took control of the White House in 1993, few in the community spoke seriously of gay marriage. In part, gay men were far more visible than lesbians, and they were -- at the time -- concerned less with that than with other aspects of being gay. For women, the lack of visibility had always been a mixed bag. Even the biblical proscriptions against homosexuality did not mention women: It seems that it never occurred to the authors of the Bible that women could be homosexual. There was also an element, among some in the community, of transgressiveness. Many gay people opposed gay marriage because they did not want to ape straight society. How much of that was self-protection, a rejection of what was clearly out of reach, cannot be measured.
Things changed during the 1990s because the Right ambushed Bill Clinton immediately upon his inauguration. They came at him with a question about legalizing gays in the military. While his initial response was that he would end discrimination against gays and lesbians, the opposition, led by Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, was so vehement, that Clinton was forced back into the now infamous "Don't ask, don't tell" proscription. By July of that year, it was all over.
Gay and lesbian leaders, especially Clinton fund raiser David Mixner, were furious at Clinton for the retreat to the hypocritical stance that kept American Armed Service personnel in the closet. Bill Clinton, who tried to govern from the center, could please no one in this regard. The Right considered "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to be the first toe in the door for legalizing homosexuality; while the lesbigay movement thought him a gutless wonder for backing down.
In the late 1980s, Virginia Uribe, a lesbian high school teacher at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles inaugurated Project 10, meant to help and give refuge to gay and lesbian teenagers. Noting the high degree of suicide among them, she believed that she could save lives by giving them support in the setting that was most hostile to them, their own school. I was at the president of the California NOW Foundation and we had helped to fund Project 10's resource guide. I attended the hearing before the Los Angeles School Board over Project 10. It was the most poisonous assembly I have ever attended. All they were missing were crosses being burnt by men in white hoods.
Several fundamentalist preachers, including the Revolting Lou Shelton of the Christian Traditional Values Coalition, arrived early, flooding the hearing room with busloads of their adherents. Most of the pro-gay speakers had to wait in the adjacent courtyard, listening to the testimony over loudspeakers. The pros- and antis- took turns presenting their evidence. I was inside and appalled at the "testimony" offered by the antis-. They would read lurid descriptions of gay male couples and lesbians having sex. In those pre-Internet times, they must have had a grand time perusing pornographic magazines for just the right tidbit. Since fantasies of lesbians having sex have long been a part of straight male porn, and because there was so little in print by lesbians about sex at the time, one could surmise what some of their sources must be. Of course, read a description of anybody of any orientation having sex and it will sound pretty shocking. There must have been a great many bulging crotches at that hearing as they heard their fantasies read out loud into the public record. They did not succeed in shutting down Project 10 in spite of their religious fervor and prurient dramatic readings.
But change was afoot. Just as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" led to an uneasy truce in the armed services, AIDS forced gay men out of the closet and Americans were forced to acknowledge their gay and lesbians children.
With the movie Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks as a gay man infected with AIDS; Antonio Banderas as his lover, and Denzel Washington as his homophobic turned sympathetic lawyer, America saw gay people for the first time not as suicidal, tragic, pathetic creatures, but as ordinary, hard-working Americans, loved by their families and doing useful work in the world.
It was in this context that the movement towards gay marriage began. Lesbians who had lost their children to hostile former husbands because the force of the law was weighted on the side of the traditional family, began to win custody of their own children; more gay men won custody of their children as well. The laws and the judges were changing. Baby could have two mommies; artificial insemination made child-bearing possible for women without men, making it possible for a woman to choose to be a lesbian and to be a parent. Gay and lesbian couples were allowed to adopt children, and the slow-moving giant of social service policy, admitted (at least in some places in America) that a child with two parents in any combination would be better off than in soul-destroying multiple foster placements or institutionalization. My sister, a social worker with San Francisco's Dependent Children's Services, says she has no qualms about placing a child with a gay or lesbian couple. Given the high degree of culpability for child molestation by straight men, giving a child to a gay or lesbian couple is a far safer bet.
So we come to the matter of gay and lesbian marriage. We who want change would do well to remember (but not surrender to) the notion that change comes slowly, and it is always one step forward, two steps back. As the great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without struggle." Our history, with all its fits and starts, twists and turns, has finally made gay and lesbian marriage inevitable. It may be a long time before gay marriage is accepted in the conservative middle of the United States, but Massachusetts and California have started the ball rolling. There will be no going back.
Dr. Rosa Maria Pegueros is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.