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Wayne Bessen

An extraordinary month
Inside the trenches of culture war combat, it is often difficult to see who is winning the conflict. The recurring recriminations, stale rhetoric and finger-pointing proclamations often leave one feeling as if we are in a perpetual stalemate.

But in the past couple of weeks, dare I say, strong evidence has emerged that suggests the gay and lesbian community has won the war. Not winning, but won. There have been victories, dramatic and mundane, that show the world has changed and will never be the same.

The most extraordinary development happened in San Diego, where Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders switched his position on same-sex marriage, while revealing that his daughter is a lesbian. In a tearful address, he signed a City Council resolution adding San Diego to a friend-of-the-court brief that urges the California Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.

I am not sure what was more remarkable, watching this cultural touchstone or witnessing a politician do what is in his heart.

“Two years ago, I believed that civil unions were a fair alternative,” Sanders said. “Those beliefs, in my case, have changed. The concept of a ‘separate but equal’ institution is not something I can support…In the end, I couldn’t look any of them [family and friends] in the face and tell them that their relationship — their very lives — were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife Rana.”

Sanders displayed the moral courage to do precisely what former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and Vice President Dick Cheney failed to do for their daughters. This dramatically changes the political equation, in that the right-wing no longer monopolizes the language of values. Finally, we have a model of morality, where a politician argues for GLBT equality in terms of heartfelt beliefs and convictions.

While the floodgates will not open tomorrow, this is the crack in the dam that will lead to the deluge. Most liberals, and even many conservatives, believe in the freedom to marry. However, fear has kept them from doing what is right. Mayor Sanders has shown them the way.
Less theatrical, yet also an important mark of change, NBC commentator Chris Matthews congratulated gay pundit Andrew Sullivan for his recent marriage on Matthews’ Sunday morning political talk show. A photograph of Sullivan embracing Aaron, his new husband, accompanied the celebratory note.

The nonchalance of this announcement — to an audience that is split between liberals and conservatives — shows how irrational fear of gay marriage is quickly receding.

Of course, there was also the recent court ruling in Iowa that led to the state’s one and only gay marriage, before the judge who issued the edict put a stay on further ceremonies. Still, this event highlights how no region is immune from grappling with this issue.

Meanwhile, the California legislature has again passed a marriage bill that would become law if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would not terminate it with his veto pen. Sure, the issue remains contentious, but the thought of gay people marrying in California is hardly a novel idea anymore. (On a down note, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected same-sex marriage by a 4-3 vote.)
As the cultural winds have shifted in favor of equality, the religious right suffered twin setbacks in Florida, a key swing state. The first disaster was the “Values Voter Presidential Debate,” where none of the major candidates appeared, treating the Religious Right as if it were just another minority group to ignore with “scheduling conflicts.”

The truth is, the “scheduling conflicts” had to do with the fact the debate questioners, a who’s who of fringe ideologues, looked like they were all on Schedule 1 medications.

Later in the week, major right-wing leaders descended upon Tampa for the “Family Impact Summit.” I was down in the Sunshine State, taking part in a counter press conference hosted by the GLBT group Equality Florida. Inside the event, right-wing leaders were openly whining about how attendance has fallen at right-wing conferences in recent years.

And, while many on the right would still prefer gay people to retreat into the closet, they now know that there is little room inside, as it is packed like a gay bar at midnight with Republicans such as Mark Foley and Larry Craig.

Sure, the ugliness of the culture war will rage for 15 to 20 more years, as our opponents get more desperate and shrill. But, like the “Family Impact Summit,” each year it will be embraced by less families and have a diminishing impact.

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