You know it's really a new day when Chicago's Mayor Daley says he'd have "no problem" if Cook County started allowing gay marriages.
Sure, it's not the Mayor Daley. It's his son. And Richard M. Daley's ability to reclaim the Chicago mayoralty for his family has from the start been based on rapprochements with all manner of groups, political factions and ideological tendencies that were, if not beyond the pale, then at least subordinated in the Chicago of his father.
But you can't have much familiarity with the strains and schisms that rent the Democratic party in its urban bastions of the North through the latter decades of the last century, and the particular convulsion in Chicago in 1968, and not find those words coming from that mouth something bracing, unexpected, in some sense hard to fathom, and yet terribly welcome.
Andrew Sullivan has been commenting on this at some length in the last few days. But it's amazing to watch how San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's act of inverted civil disobedience (a Mayor violating the seemingly clear letter of the law in the cause of a higher principle of equality) has unleashed the floodgates around the country. The county in New Mexico, which briefly started issuing marriage licenses, has now apparently reversed itself. But I think Andrew is right that this spate of marriages -- at least in San Francisco and perhaps now in other locales -- has suddenly made this whole issue concrete and human in a way it simply wasn't before.
I'm not sure that makes the movement's eventual success more likely. But it clearly makes it impossible for anyone to ignore. It now has to be confronted across the political spectrum -- by some eagerly, and by others with great reluctance.
I must confess to a deep ambivalence about same-sex marriages. It's not one of belief or values, but one of pragmatism, at least as I understand it -- and yet a pragmatism I'm not entirely comfortable with.
I strongly support civil unions -- the ability of gay and lesbian couples to solemnize their unions and enjoy the whole raft of civil protections, privileges and obligations that heterosexual couples do through marriage -- survivorship rights, the ability to visit and make decisions for a sick spouse in the hospital, etc. Anything less just conflicts with everything I believe is right and just.
My reason for not supporting gay marriage -- and I think there's a difference between opposing and not supporting, in this case -- is that it seems like a step that would trigger a backlash that would a) quite possibly prevent the adoption even of civil unions and b) provide a tool for conservatives to win elections and thus prevent or turn back various other progressive reforms that are no less important than this one. (Of course, this hybrid reasoning has all manner of uncomfortable echoes from the middle decades of the 20th century.)
In other words, when I say that I don't support gay marriage, my reasoning and rationale are inextricably tied up with my sense of the larger political context in which the question arises -- what's possible and what's not, and what the larger political repercussions would be. In fact, I find the two parts of the equation difficult to untangle even in my own head. (If there's an undertone of uncertainty or moral awkwardness you recognize in this post it likely stems from my feeling that the open embrace of gay marriage from so many unexpected quarters shames what seems to me to be my own timidity.)
I don't think these concerns about broader political repercussions can be easily or honestly ignored. And yet if we posit a country in which there is marriage for heterosexuals and civil unions for gays and lesbians, then, paradoxically, I think the state-imposed stigma becomes even greater than it is now. Not entirely so, but at least by one measure.
Today we have marriage. It's a state-sanctioned institution for men and women. The state just, by and large, isn't involved in homosexual relationships. Now, I know that there are laws on the books in many states that definitely do involve the state in same-sex relationships adversely. And in practice, the state can have much less than a hands-off approach.
Yet, if we have marriage (for straights) and civil unions (for gays), then you have the state being in the business of solemnizing and recognizing both kinds of relationships, but in a way that clearly gives preference -- even if just symbolically -- to straights. Once you make the leap to civil unions, this sort of public denigration of same-sex relationships seems hard to justify, and full gay marriage seems hard not to embrace.
I know that little in these ideas or formulations is novel. They just give a sense of my thoughts on the issue, and my wrestling with it. But the images of happy newlyweds in San Francisco is jostling my own calculus of pragmatism and right.