Jonathan Rauch: “We are a sideshow no longer”

At his first same-sex marriage since Obama's big announcement, a longtime advocate reflects on a decades-long fight

Topics: Gay Marriage, Editor's Picks,

Jonathan Rauch: "We are a sideshow no longer" (Credit: Chris Howey via Shutterstock)

It’s a beautiful spring day in Washington, D.C., around 5 p.m. I am arriving at the august Peterson Institute for International Economics. Today, however, the place is not a think tank but a chapel, and the important words to be uttered are not “trade-weighted exchange rates” but “I do.”

My old friend Joe Gagnon is getting married today to Paul Adamczak, his longtime partner. How I hate that word “partner”! As if Joe and Paul were members of the same law firm. Within the hour, I am pleased to realize, they will be partners no longer. Under District of Columbia law, they will be husbands.

Today’s ceremony is freighted with extra excitement. Only three days ago, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. The subject is much discussed here at the wedding. Of course, as an invitee mentions, Obama’s endorsement alters not a jot of law, not a tittle of policy. Yet a cultural barrier has been crossed, a taboo forever retired. The highest officer in the land and, by extension, his political party and half the country have embraced today’s ceremony as their own. We are a sideshow, an outlier, no longer.

The think tank’s auditorium is transformed by draperies, flowers, gentle lighting, rows of plush chairs. Lovely. It occurs to me, as I reflect on the week’s events, that only one decoration is missing. An American flag would be very much in order.

Chamber musicians play as I take a seat. A few rows ahead of me sits a restless boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old. My mind pitches back to an earlier time, more than four decades ago, and another boy, about the same age. He is sitting on the piano bench in his house in suburban Phoenix. I remember exactly the spot, exactly the moment, though I could not tell you the date exactly. Suddenly, out of the blue, the boy realizes that he will never be married. He does not know why marriage and family are out of his reach. He will in fact not understand why for almost 20 years, when he comes to understand he is homosexual. But children understand marriage long before they understand sex, and this boy knows, intuitively, that he is different in some way that rules out the kind of life that other people take for granted. He will always be an outsider to family life.

I look again at the boy in front of me and try to imagine what it is like to be him. He will never experience the desolate realization that I had long ago in Phoenix. He will never even be able to comprehend it. The wedding he now witnesses seems ordinary to him. For the whole span of his life, whether he is straight or gay, there will be a destination for his love within the folds of marriage. I find I envy him.

The grooms are walking down the aisle, Joe accompanied by his father, Paul by his mother. In front, two candles are lit for the parents who are not here. I wonder how Joe’s father feels, giving away his son to a man in a legally recognized ceremony. I think back on a conversation with my own father. This is in 1995, not so very long ago, but an eon as it seems today. He is urging me not to write about gay marriage, a subject I will soon take up for the Economist and the New Republic. He knows and accepts that I am gay; that is not the problem. It is my career he is worried about. The idea of a man marrying a man or a woman marrying a woman, he tells me, is such an outlandish idea that if I associate myself with it I will no longer be taken seriously as a writer. People will think I’m a nut. At the time, his prediction seemed plausible.

You Might Also Like

My gaze alights on one of the absent parents’ candles. My father lived to know and love Michael, who became like another son to him. He lived to see same-sex marriage legalized in Massachusetts and then in several other states. Alas, he died only a few months before Michael and I could legally marry in Washington, D.C. Had he been at our wedding, he would have blessed us, happy to see his prediction proved so blessedly wrong.

The officiant begins the ceremony and the grooms join hands. There are readings from Robert Frost and Plato’s Symposium. Later, Joe will admit to worrying that the readings might seem hackneyed. But the words have their intended effect as my eyes well up. They have an unintended effect, also, as I realize the improbability of what I am witnessing: a thoroughly conventional same-sex wedding.

Earlier that very day, as it happens, I had received an email that was like a bad LSD flashback. Objecting to a recent pro-gay-marriage article of mine, the writer identified himself as a member of the Stonewall generation. “I myself  was active in the Gay Liberation Movement way back in the beginning in the early ’70s and am now horrified by the whole cloying Gay Marriage issue,” he wrote. “It seems deranged that we should now want to ape straights; surely we should continue to do what we’ve always done best: standing aside from, and viewing sardonically, the straight world.”

When I began advocating gay marriage in the mid-1990s, and then well into the new century, I used to hear this kind of objection all the time. A gay couple first attempted to marry in 1970, just a few months after the famous riots outside the Stonewall Bar in New York City; but marriage was not then taken up by the gay-rights movement. Matrimony seemed not only out of reach but out of touch with the liberationist, libertine ethos of the time. We were supposed to be breaking the fetters of conventionality, reinventing sexuality and ourselves.

But then came the plague, and the discovery, too often, that we had only each other for family, yet we had none of the tools to care for one another that families need. We could not enter the hospital room; sometimes, we could not even enter the country. We would use our bodies to warm our shuddering “lover” (such was the term in those days — even worse than “partner”). We would hand-feed him as he wasted. Then, when he passed, we would be sent packing by the relatives who had never known or cared we existed.

Never again, we said. That was when we understood that real liberation lies in family’s embrace, not its rejection. Triple-drug HIV therapy and the gay-marriage movement arrived almost simultaneously. No coincidence, that.

Conservatives worry that gay participation will change marriage for the worse. Gay-liberationists (the few that remain) worry it will change gays for the worse. I wish they could all be here, as the grooms take their vows, to see how marriage has changed gays for the better. The ancient words wash over me. To have and to hold … for better for worse … until death do us part. These are words with the power not only to turn unrelated individuals into next of kin, to bond their extended families, to shelter their children, and to build communities; they are words that have reformed, and indeed re-formed, an entire culture.

As I sit here, I cannot help feeling vindicated by the rage of that aging gay objector. He has lost. It is over. Gays have not claimed marriage; it has claimed us.

The couple, now husbands, are returning down the aisle amid a commotion of hugs and smiles. Now there will be a cocktail reception, then a dinner, then a honeymoon — in Disney World, no less. It occurs to me that I have never seen so traditional and comfortingly familiar an occasion. It occurs to me that to be alive just now, seeing what I am seeing, is a miracle. The air around us is thick with the spirits of long-passed homosexual men and women, so many of them tormented and persecuted, who could never have dreamt of this future.

As I pass a multi-tiered wedding cake, I suddenly wish I could rectify a blunder. A couple of days earlier, in a radio interview, an interviewer asked me how I felt, as a gay man, about Obama’s announcement. I had been expecting to talk about politics and polls, not myself. Caught off guard, I rambled about being pleased and surprised and whatnot. Only now do I realize that the right answer was a single word. “Grateful,” I should have said. “I feel grateful.”

I kick myself. Why does one always think of the right answer when it’s too late? But the reproach barely registers before I am lost in the happy glow of sunshine and champagne.

Jonathan Rauch is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>