My Evolution on Gay Rights

I was a bit clueless. But living and working among gay people helped me, like others, understand.

Same-sex marriage supporters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. The rights of married same-sex couples will come under scrutiny at the US Supreme Court on Wednesday in the second of two landmark cases being considered by the top judicial panel. After the nine justices mulled arguments on a California law that outlawed gay marriage on Tuesday, they will take up a challenge to the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The 1996 law prevents couples who have tied the knot in nine states -- where same-sex marriage is legal -- from enjoying the same federal rights as heterosexual couples. 
AFP/Getty Images
Charlie Cook
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

As re­cently as a dec­ade ago, the mar­riage-equal­ity move­ment looked like a long, tough slog. Today, about 55 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans sup­port same-sex mar­riage; it is now leg­al in 17 states, sev­en of those hav­ing ac­ted in the past year alone. The civil-rights jour­ney for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans took more than a cen­tury. The wo­men’s suf­frage move­ment began in co­lo­ni­al days and wasn’t fin­ished un­til the early 20th cen­tury. But the equal-rights move­ment for gays gained mo­mentum in what seems like the blink of an eye, be­gin­ning with the Mas­sachu­setts Su­preme Court’s 2003 de­cision al­low­ing same-sex mar­riage. In­deed, it’s hard to trace much pub­lic polit­ic­al ad­vance­ment be­fore the 1969 Stone­wall ri­ots in New York City’s Green­wich Vil­lage. This move­ment has snow­balled at a dizzy­ing pace.

As a straight, ideo­lo­gic­ally middle-of-the-road, white male, born in the South in the early 1950s, I had little pre­dis­pos­i­tion to sup­port same-sex mar­riage. For most of my life, un­til the 1990s, I didn’t really think much about it. My feel­ings were char­ac­ter­ized more by am­bi­val­ence than skep­ti­cism. The is­sue didn’t seem ter­ribly rel­ev­ant to me, a feel­ing that was prob­ably pretty com­mon­place at that time.

My per­son­al odys­sey on gay rights star­ted in 1998 when I offered a job to a wo­man I had met a few months earli­er. She was the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for a ma­jor na­tion­al ad­vocacy group. The wo­man was smart, highly pro­fes­sion­al, and im­press­ive. I didn’t have any idea about her sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion. It cer­tainly wasn’t an is­sue for me. I just nev­er thought about it. Be­fore she ac­cep­ted the of­fer, she met with my two fe­male cowork­ers and asked, “Would it mat­ter to Charlie that I am gay?” They replied that it wouldn’t be an is­sue.

She came to work with us and be­came not just a col­league but also a close friend. And, like many semi-clue­less straight guys, I also came to learn a lot about the chal­lenges fa­cing gay people, even those who live in urb­an areas and have sup­port­ive bosses. In 1999, I went to a com­mit­ment ce­re­mony, my first, for her and her part­ner on the East­ern Shore. At that time, not only were they un­able to be leg­ally united but I couldn’t put her part­ner on our com­pany health care plan — even if I paid more for it. This wasn’t just an is­sue of fair­ness; it also put small busi­nesses like The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port at a com­pet­it­ive dis­ad­vant­age. It was easy to un­der­stand why busi­ness got far ahead of politi­cians on this is­sue.

Last year, this couple had a long over­due — and leg­al — wed­ding in the Dis­trict of Columbia. Polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives in both parties and journ­al­ists from every ma­jor news or­gan­iz­a­tion in town at­ten­ded. Everything was as nor­mal as any oth­er wed­ding. Her spouse is also now fully covered by our health care plan.

To me, one of the keys to this gi­gant­ic change in pub­lic at­ti­tudes is role mod­els. As more and more straight Amer­ic­ans came to be aware of, and got to know, gay couples — homeown­ers, many in long­time, com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ships, and par­ents liv­ing as “nor­mal” a life as any­one else — it just began to seem not dif­fer­ent. It was no longer so un­usu­al, so “un­nat­ur­al” or, for some, so threat­en­ing. And in every re­gion; in con­ser­vat­ive, mod­er­ate, and lib­er­al fam­il­ies; among Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans; across all eco­nom­ic, so­cial, and ra­cial lines, it just star­ted to be more com­mon. A na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist re­cently told me of vis­it­ing cam­pus chapters of an ex­tremely con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tion in a South­ern state, and ask­ing stu­dents about same-sex mar­riage. None seemed to have a prob­lem with it. Re­cently, a very high-level GOP op­er­at­ive con­fided that he couldn’t think of a na­tion­al race where he would use the gay-mar­riage is­sue against a Demo­crat. That’s an amaz­ing de­par­ture from just 10 years ago, when the is­sue was used as a power­ful polit­ic­al wedge.

My kids grew up with this cowork­er friend and her part­ner, who came to our house for cookouts, birth­days, and of­fice parties, and I don’t re­mem­ber ever hav­ing any con­ver­sa­tions with them about it — or about the gay couple liv­ing next door (who are far bet­ter neigh­bors than their pre­de­cessors). Years later, when one of our sons told me of par­ti­cip­at­ing in a class de­bate on same-sex mar­riage, with some trep­id­a­tion I asked him which side he took (you nev­er know about teen­age boys). He replied in­dig­nantly, “For it, of course,” of­fen­ded that I would even think he might not be. I smiled to my­self, think­ing, We raised him right. To our chil­dren, hav­ing gay friends was no dif­fer­ent than hav­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, Latino, Asi­an, left-handed, short, or tall friends. It just didn’t mat­ter. I rather doubt that my late par­ents or grand­par­ents would have had quite that same view.

In my opin­ion, what has happened is at­ti­tu­din­al change based on gen­er­a­tions and per­son­al life ex­per­i­ences. Al­most every fam­ily has a son or daugh­ter, niece, neph­ew, cous­in, next-door neigh­bor, cowork­er, or class­mate who is gay, and most likely quite a few at that. We’ve come to think it’s as nor­mal as any­thing else. Be­cause it is.

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