My Evolution on Gay Rights

As re­cently as a dec­ade ago, the mar­riage-equal­ity move­ment looked like a long, tough slog. Today, about 55 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans sup­port same-sex mar­riage; it is now leg­al in 17 states, sev­en of those hav­ing ac­ted in the past year alone. The civil-rights jour­ney for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans took more than a cen­tury. The wo­men’s suf­frage move­ment began in co­lo­ni­al days and wasn’t fin­ished un­til the early 20th cen­tury. But the equal-rights move­ment for gays gained mo­mentum in what seems like the blink of an eye, be­gin­ning with the Mas­sachu­setts Su­preme Court’s 2003 de­cision al­low­ing same-sex mar­riage. In­deed, it’s hard to trace much pub­lic polit­ic­al ad­vance­ment be­fore the 1969 Stone­wall ri­ots in New York City’s Green­wich Vil­lage. This move­ment has snow­balled at a dizzy­ing pace.

As a straight, ideo­lo­gic­ally middle-of-the-road, white male, born in the South in the early 1950s, I had little pre­dis­pos­i­tion to sup­port same-sex mar­riage. For most of my life, un­til the 1990s, I didn’t really think much about it. My feel­ings were char­ac­ter­ized more by am­bi­val­ence than skep­ti­cism. The is­sue didn’t seem ter­ribly rel­ev­ant to me, a feel­ing that was prob­ably pretty com­mon­place at that time.

My per­son­al odys­sey on gay rights star­ted in 1998 when I offered a job to a wo­man I had met a few months earli­er. She was the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for a ma­jor na­tion­al ad­vocacy group. The wo­man was smart, highly pro­fes­sion­al, and im­press­ive. I didn’t have any idea about her sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion. It cer­tainly wasn’t an is­sue for me. I just nev­er thought about it. Be­fore she ac­cep­ted the of­fer, she met with my two fe­male cowork­ers and asked, “Would it mat­ter to Charlie that I am gay?” They replied that it wouldn’t be an is­sue.

She came to work with us and be­came not just a col­league but also a close friend. And, like many semi-clue­less straight guys, I also came to learn a lot about the chal­lenges fa­cing gay people, even those who live in urb­an areas and have sup­port­ive bosses. In 1999, I went to a com­mit­ment ce­re­mony, my first, for her and her part­ner on the East­ern Shore. At that time, not only were they un­able to be leg­ally united but I couldn’t put her part­ner on our com­pany health care plan — even if I paid more for it. This wasn’t just an is­sue of fair­ness; it also put small busi­nesses like The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port at a com­pet­it­ive dis­ad­vant­age. It was easy to un­der­stand why busi­ness got far ahead of politi­cians on this is­sue.

Last year, this couple had a long over­due — and leg­al — wed­ding in the Dis­trict of Columbia. Polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives in both parties and journ­al­ists from every ma­jor news or­gan­iz­a­tion in town at­ten­ded. Everything was as nor­mal as any oth­er wed­ding. Her spouse is also now fully covered by our health care plan.

To me, one of the keys to this gi­gant­ic change in pub­lic at­ti­tudes is role mod­els. As more and more straight Amer­ic­ans came to be aware of, and got to know, gay couples — homeown­ers, many in long­time, com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ships, and par­ents liv­ing as “nor­mal” a life as any­one else — it just began to seem not dif­fer­ent. It was no longer so un­usu­al, so “un­nat­ur­al” or, for some, so threat­en­ing. And in every re­gion; in con­ser­vat­ive, mod­er­ate, and lib­er­al fam­il­ies; among Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans; across all eco­nom­ic, so­cial, and ra­cial lines, it just star­ted to be more com­mon. A na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist re­cently told me of vis­it­ing cam­pus chapters of an ex­tremely con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tion in a South­ern state, and ask­ing stu­dents about same-sex mar­riage. None seemed to have a prob­lem with it. Re­cently, a very high-level GOP op­er­at­ive con­fided that he couldn’t think of a na­tion­al race where he would use the gay-mar­riage is­sue against a Demo­crat. That’s an amaz­ing de­par­ture from just 10 years ago, when the is­sue was used as a power­ful polit­ic­al wedge.

My kids grew up with this cowork­er friend and her part­ner, who came to our house for cookouts, birth­days, and of­fice parties, and I don’t re­mem­ber ever hav­ing any con­ver­sa­tions with them about it — or about the gay couple liv­ing next door (who are far bet­ter neigh­bors than their pre­de­cessors). Years later, when one of our sons told me of par­ti­cip­at­ing in a class de­bate on same-sex mar­riage, with some trep­id­a­tion I asked him which side he took (you nev­er know about teen­age boys). He replied in­dig­nantly, “For it, of course,” of­fen­ded that I would even think he might not be. I smiled to my­self, think­ing, We raised him right. To our chil­dren, hav­ing gay friends was no dif­fer­ent than hav­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, Latino, Asi­an, left-handed, short, or tall friends. It just didn’t mat­ter. I rather doubt that my late par­ents or grand­par­ents would have had quite that same view.

In my opin­ion, what has happened is at­ti­tu­din­al change based on gen­er­a­tions and per­son­al life ex­per­i­ences. Al­most every fam­ily has a son or daugh­ter, niece, neph­ew, cous­in, next-door neigh­bor, cowork­er, or class­mate who is gay, and most likely quite a few at that. We’ve come to think it’s as nor­mal as any­thing else. Be­cause it is.

Originally published at nationaljournal.com