Seize the Day

Last night I went to a strategy meeting on gay marriage at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center. During the open discussion period, one person asked whether pushing too hard might turn gay marriage into the “Ralph Nader of this election year.”

It’s a fear that no reasonable person would dismiss out of hand. But I think we should take the risk of not yielding to it. With the marriages in San Francisco and New Paltz, and the impending marriages in Massachusetts, the issue has a momentum unprecedented in American history, and to let it dissipate would be a foolish prudence. If gay marriages stay on the books even in just one municipality, the gain will be enormous. At last night’s meeting, Lawrence Moss explained that New York City is actually in a better legal position to certify gay marriages than San Francisco. A recent popular referendum limited California marriages to heterosexuals, but New York State law is gender-neutral on marriage. In upstate New York, clerks must consult with the health department in Albany before issuing marriage licenses, but the New York City clerk has the authority to issue them on his own. In other words, if the clerk of New York City chose to, he could marry lesbians and gays with 100% legality tomorrow. Bloomberg could ask the clerk to do it; so could the city council. Giuliani famously moved in with a gay couple following his divorce, and I can’t help but wonder whether, if he were still mayor, the clerk would already have been asked to issue them.

There will be a backlash, but right now it looks as if the Republicans are at least as demoralized and at sea on the issue as the Democrats. In fact, some early signs suggest that Americans will see Bush’s proposal to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage for the bigoted and hateful act that it is. Supporters of Bush’s amendment say things like “Homosexuals are disillusioned by lies from Satan.” Most Americans are not so blinded by hate that they cherish any illusions about Satan, homosexuals, or tolerance in the first place. The Republican National Convention will take place in New York City, where it is difficult to dodge either homosexuals or humanity. I doubt that political pressure on the issue will have abated by then.

On the other hand, the Democratic National Convention will take place in Boston, a city somewhat further along in the struggle over gay marriage, and one is not terrifically cheered by the positions that the Democratic presidential candidates have taken on the issue. In The New Republic of 23 February 2004, Noam Scheiber made this analysis of John Kerry and gay marriage: “The question . . . , I guess, is whether he’d rather be defined as a hopeless liberal or a hopeless panderer. Not a choice I’d want to make.” The analysis was probably written a couple of weeks ago; the cynicism of it already seems dated. But even when I read it last week, I thought to myself, well, if you do face two choices that seem equally “hopeless” as short-term political strategies, why not turn the impasse to your advantage by choosing to do what is right? So far, neither Kerry nor Edwards has, unfortunately. (Among the candidates, the best line on the issue to date belongs to Al Sharpton: “The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether either of you have a job when you get up in the morning.”)

But although the presidential candidates have been unhelpful, less stratospheric politicians have become heroes of gay marriage: Gavin Newsom, Jason West, and now Eliot Spitzer, who has declined Pataki’s request that he halt the marriages in New Paltz. The lesbian and gay movement has allies in the straight community now that weren’t available in the 1980s and even the 1990s (voters under thirty, for example, overwhelmingly support gay marriage). We will need styles of activism that take advantage of their support, and we may not have discovered yet what they are.

Leander visits Columbia, 1786

Columbia University is celebrating its 250th anniversary, in honor of which, here’s how the college looked to a visitor on Wednesday, 16 August 1786, when it was just thirty-two. (The visitor was a graduate of Nassau Hall, today known as Princeton, and the comparisons of Columbia to his alma mater are a little invidious.)

. . . Went to view the bathing-houses — like them exceedingly & propose to go in tomorrow if the day is suitable —— from thence took a direction for the college & after passing thro some stragling [sic] ill-built streets came to it — It stands on a very elevated situation & makes a good appearance — I wished to see the inside but having no acquaintance with any of the professors I was somewhat at a loss — at length concluded to enquire for Mr Schuyler (son to the General) upon the strength of my acquaintance with his brother John — The building has four doors & (I think) sixteen windows in width — I enter’d the first door which lead [sic] to one of the professor’s appartments [sic] & was directed to the second to enquire for Mr Scuyler’s [sic] room — I found the College was like many New York houses, more in appearance than reality — it was very ill-contrived & but one room & two studies deep — very narrow passages & shabby staircases — & upon the whole nothing to compare to Nassau Hall either in airiness or convenience — when I entered the second door some blowsy headed man who was very much like the picture of Peter the Wild Boy, an usher I supposed, came out into the entry — he pointed for me to go up stairs & dodged in again — I went up, & a desolate castle it appeared to be for I peep’d into the third story without seeing or hearing a creature — In the third story I rattled at a study door which was locked when a sudden voice bawl’d out “who’s there” — I answerd [sic] “a friend” & rattled again before it was opened, when a trio of blades were discovered who seemd [sic] to drop their ears all at once on seeing a sort of person whom they so little expected — They were however very civil chums & showed me into the next room for Mr Schuyler’s while one of them went down to call him — he was not to be found but his room-mate (I took him to be) appeared — an awkward gangling young man about twenty — I told him I wanted to see the college & had called on Mr Schuyler for that purpose — Whether it was thro’ indolence or confusion or that things really were as he described them I cannot tell, but he gave such a woeful account of things that my curiosity was quite satisfied — that their apparatus was broken, their library destroyed, that there were no good rooms, & in short that there was nothing in it worth a stranger’s notice — How different thought I is this from the emulation of Nassau, & gave him a hint of it which did not seem to touch his pride much, so after enquiring the number of students (of whom he said there were thirty) & a few more questions I left my compliments for Mr. S & bid him good morning — the chums at the door (of whom a party had gathered in the mean time) all making their obeisance to me as I passed —I returned by the Oswego market & made a bargain with a fruit woman for some temptingly fine large plums . . .

The description is from pages 97 to 99 of the first volume of the diary of Leander, a.k.a. John Fishbourne Mifflin, discussed in chapter 1 of my book, American Sympathy.

You can’t always get what you want

A few days ago, someone reached this blog by Googling for “housewife animal sex.” The mind boggles. (On all fours, the animal approached the housewife. “Just a minute,” she pleaded; “I can’t have sex with you until I scrape the egg off the bottom of this pan.” The animal cocked an ear. The housewife scrubbed. Fade to black, accompanied by growls, yelps, and the sound of running water.)

The possum is dead

After Bush, in his State of the Union address, spoke approvingly of a possible amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage, none of the leading Democratic presidential candidates took him to task. Newspapers pointed to his somewhat periphrastic language (about “Constitutional process”) and suggested, optimistically, that he might have been making a gesture without any real political consequences.

Liberals were playing possum. It was feared, after all, that gays who marry might become the Willie Horton of the 2004 election. Maybe if Democrats didn’t show any sign of life on the issue, it would go away. Unfortunately for them, now that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has informed the state senate that nothing short of marriage for same-sex couples will be constitutional in that state, the possum may have to be discarded.