On April 3, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state's same-sex marriage ban violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian couples. Just four days later, Vermont's legislature voted to legalize same-sex marriages.
Predictably, opponents have been predicting that the sky will fall. Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center, for example, claims that heterosexual marriage is the "seabed and cradle of civilization," and that same-sex marriage "is a battle of good versus evil, truth versus lies."
I'm not gay. I am a married, heterosexual father. I am also raising a child on the border between Noe Valley, a notoriously child-friendly enclave in San Francisco, and the Castro, one of the world's gayest neighborhoods. In San Francisco, one doesn't have to imagine a dystopian time when homosexuality is an integral part of American life. In my neighborhood especially, that particular "apocalypse" is now, and it apparently involves a great deal of diaper changing. Gay and lesbian families are a daily reality in the place where I live-- in particular, they are very much a part of my family's daily life, my son's life.
I expect Iowans and Vermonters-- along with residents of Maine and New Hampshire and, indeed, everyone in America-- might be interested in hearing how it's going, since those states are about to join Connecticut and Massachusetts in becoming popular destinations for same-sex weddings. Have the gay and lesbian couples around us undermined my marriage or threatened my son in some way? In neighborhoods like ours, have the Christian Right's apocalyptic predictions of social collapse come to pass?
The answer is no. Quite the opposite. In fact, neighborhoods like the Castro and Noe Valley are flourishing. Locally, Noe Valley is jokingly referred to as "Stroller Valley," because of the on-the street visibility of families with young children. Some of these parents are gay and lesbian, but most are straight. And today, heterosexual parents in neighborhoods like the Castro know a secret: These are great communities in which to raise children.
Three-year-old Ezra is one of my son's best buddies, and this past October, Ezra joined our circle of friends and family in seeing his moms Jackie and Jessica get married. "At the wedding Ezra saw the community and the family come together, and he saw us become married," Jackie later told me. "He won't fully understand what that means until he gets older, but it was a very powerful day for him. Most of his friends have a mommy and a daddy, and so I think it was huge for him to have all those friends come together and see us married."
Jessica added, "It's so important that Ezra grows up in a supportive environment. He can't just feel like our family is tolerated. He has to feel accepted. That's what marriage does for us: It allows us to just be a family, to be a normal part of the community." Jackie and Jessica have always felt as though, as Jessica said, "The onus is on us to prove the merit of our relationship." With Ezra in the picture, both mothers felt that marriage was a necessary step in positioning themselves in their social world.
For Jessica's parents, their daughter's marriage was an intensely meaningful event. "It was wonderful to see Jessica so dressed up and looking so beautiful," said Jessica's mother Elizabeth. "I was just so happy for them." Every member of Jackie and Jessica's circle of friends and family that later I interviewed felt the same way: It made us happy to see our friends marry. That's a commonplace feeling at weddings, but, of course, not everyone in America has the right to a legal marriage. Their wedding was extraordinary because it came to us all as a gift we never expected.
Iowa and Vermont are about to receive the same gift. I wonder if the Iowa Supreme Court judges and Vermont legislators who legalized same-sex marriage are aware of how much happiness they are helping to create? Their working lives consist of books, papers, arguments, precedents, a place apart from our small, private worlds. And yet their votes, I can tell you from my experience in San Francisco, will immediately improve many lives. Christian Right activists in Vermont and Iowa are already gearing up for ballot battles. Do those two states have the courage to embrace the happiness their leaders helped create?
California did not: In November 2008, voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. This event was devastating to Jackie and Jessica's friends and family-- many of us, we later recalled, wept on hearing the news-- and yet most felt that something had started that would prove unstoppable in the long run.
"I was hurt," said Jessica's father Oscar. "I was looking forward to their marriage being solidified, accepted, institutionalized, like everybody else's marriage. It was an unpleasant moment, but it makes no difference to me. They love each other and they are making a family, and that's enough for me."
During this period of our lives, the director Gus Van Sant filmed Milk, a movie that would later be nominated for eight Academy Awards, in our neighborhood. Harvey Milk, played in the movie by Sean Penn, was the first openly gay politician "in the history of the planet," to quote Time magazine. He represented the Castro on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was killed in 1978 (along with Mayor George Moscone) by city supervisor Dan White. When White was sentenced to a mere seven years for the crime, there were riots.
Every day during that spring and summer of 2008, my family watched Milk come together. The facades of many Castro businesses were torn down and rebuilt to appear as they were in the 1970s; we saw Sean Penn and James Franco (whom my wife describes as "supernaturally beautiful" in real life) loitering around coffee shops; we watched staggering amounts of preparation for scenes that appeared to last for two minutes; and we residents were herded like cattle to avoid stumbling into scenes where our clothing would have made us anachronisms. Gray-haired gay men reminisced about those days—and the Castro's children, including my son, asked about this Harvey Milk person.
One early morning I walked with Liko down Castro, and they had apparently just finished filming scenes of the riot that ignited after White’s conviction. The Castro was once again transformed, now with smashed windows, burned-out cars, and graffiti.
"What's going on, Daddy?" Liko asked.
"It's part of the movie," I said.
"Was there a fight?"
"People were angry because Harvey Milk had been killed."
"Who was Harvey Milk?"
"Harvey Milk was a leader who fought for the rights of people like Ezra’s mommies," I said, and paused: How could I explain this in a concrete way that he would understand? I said, "Some people think that girls shouldn’t be able to marry girls and boys shouldn’t be able to marry boys."
"Why?" he asked.
I stopped in my tracks. I had no idea how to answer him. Nothing I could say would make any sense to him, and I feared implying that Ezra’s mommies were somehow not normal.
This was the first and only moment that I felt real rage against the supporters of Proposition 8. They claimed that they didn't want to be "forced" to explain homosexuality to their children, and yet they were forcing me to explain something far worse to my child: how fear and hate can drive us apart. Love, I realized, is easy to explain to children. Discrimination, on the other hand, is virtually impossible.
On our way home that day, we stopped at Marcello's for a slice of pizza. We sat on a bench outside and ate, watching the movie crew take down the wreckage of the play-riot.
"Why are they making a movie here, Daddy?" Liko asked.
"Because something important happened in your neighborhood," I said. "People like Harvey Milk worked together to make the world a better place."
"How is it better?"
I paused again. Was America, in fact, a better place than it had been in Harvey Milk's time? Images flickered through my mind, of wars and strife and falling wages and rising unemployment and all the stupid things I’ve seen and heard in the media in my three and a half decades of life. I asked myself: What mattered most?
After a moment, I came up with an answer. "It's better because back in old-fashioned days, some people were allowed to fall in love and other people weren't. Whenever you increase the amount of love in the world, Liko, it becomes a better place."