What’s driving the new twin offensives against gay marriage announced by George Bush and the Pope? A reactionary wedding of morality and politics, naturally.
Bush cloaked his decision to jump on the antigay marriage bandwagon in “we’re all sinners” biblical rhetoric, a ploy that even seduced the New York Times, which obtusely praised the President for a “careful attempt to brush back…bigotry.” In fact, Bush’s choice to exploit gay marriage was motivated by crass electoral calculations. First, distract voters from more pressing issues that have eroded his support in the polls. Second, throw red meat to energize his Christian-right base–Karl Rove has complained publicly that 4 million of the 19 million evangelical Christians didn’t vote in the last national election. Third, surf on the antigay backlash against the Supreme Court’s sodomy decision: A Gallup poll two days before Bush unexpectedly pounced on gays showed that support for same-sex civil unions dropped to just 40 percent, the lowest level in three years–and support for making gay sex legal plummeted from 60 to 48 percent.
America perceives itself through television’s eye, and the new gay media visibility has fed the backlash. On TV gays are still, with a few exceptions, subjected to a “gauntlet of humiliation,” as a San Francisco Chronicle analysis recently put it. The one-dimensional, fashion-and-sex-enthralled, stereotypical inhabitants of Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Boy Meets Boy and other much-hyped niche programming raise hackles in the heartland. So does all-news TV’s obsessive coverage of gay US couples flocking to Canada or Vermont to marry or unite civilly and the crisis in the Anglican church over the ordination of gay bishops. Even the use of same-sex couples in advertising by mainstream companies like Volvo has contributed to the media’s much-touted “gaying” of America.
The United States is the most religious of any industrialized democracy, and at a time of economic uncertainty and security hysteria, the railings of the Christian right against the cultural “chaos” of gay marriage offer up gays to the frustrated and fearful as a convenient target, especially to the undereducated and underemployed, who see upwardly mobile consumerist gays on TV enjoying advantages beyond their reach. Resentment combined with religiosity is why 54 percent of Hispanics oppose gay marriage while only 40 percent support it, and among African-Americans there is a whopping 65-28 percent split, according to a July Pew poll.
Every civil rights movement encounters reaction the closer it gets to success–remember the 1960s “white backlash” against the “uppity” blacks, which Richard Nixon and George Wallace exploited to electoral advantage? Well, us “uppity” queers are now getting a dose of the same from those who find change unsettling. Bush’s strategists know all this–and how to use it. The anti-gay marriage offensive is their way of coagulating the unease about ever-more-visible homosexuality into manipulable form.
As for the Pope, Wojtyla’s order that Catholic politicians must oppose not just marriage between same-sex couples but any legal recognition of their unions is primarily a last-ditch attempt to create a political firewall against the emerging new reality in Western democracies. First country to marry gay couples: the Netherlands in 2001, followed not long after by Belgium. Germany now accords all the legal rights that married heterosexual couples have to their gay counterparts (except in Catholic Bavaria), and numerous city halls have been host to gay “weddings.”
Denmark (in 1989), Norway (1993) and Sweden (1995) have given full legal equality to gay couples, and these Scandinavian countries have a tripartite pact insuring cross-border recognition of those couples’ rights. France adopted its PACS (pact of civil solidarity) for gay couples in 1998, Hungary (in 1995) and Portugal (in 2001) recognized gay civil unions, and this July Croatia put unmarried gay and hetero couples on an equal legal footing. Gay civil unions are recognized by a number of Spanish provinces, by the cantons of Zurich and Geneva in Switzerland, and by some Italian cities, like Florence. A majority of Italians–51.6 percent–even favor gay marriage, according to a poll released in June (which also found that 49.2 percent of Italians consider homosexuality to be a form of love comparable to heterosexuality). The Vatican’s aging, troglodyte hierarchy thus finds itself isolated on its home turf.
In Canada, where this year gay couples won the right to marry in two provinces, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s government has prepared legislation giving gay marriage equality throughout the country. But the backlash in our neighbor to the north is against the Pope: After prelates threatened to excommunicate Chrétien, a poll found that 59 percent of Canadians opposed the Catholic Church’s issuing directives to politicians on how to vote.
The Pope’s antigay crusade is also obviously meant to distract attention from the church’s ongoing pedophile scandals. The hypocrisy in the Vatican’s pronunciamento that gay unions would lead to adoptions by gay couples, which “would actually mean doing violence to these children,” was underscored when CBS News unearthed a secret Vatican directive, in force since 1962, to cover up priestly sex abuse under “penalty of excommunication” for any cleric who talked.
This revelation, however, is unlikely to keep the Pope’s declarations from driving more of the devout into the GOP’s eager embrace next November as Bush plays the gay marriage card. And a new Washington Post poll out August 14, with higher negatives for same-sex unions than Gallup’s, not only confirms the anti-gay backlash but suggests it continues to grow.