The phrase was at once cringe-inducing and shrewdly deflective. “I am a gay American,” New Jersey governor James McGreevey announced as he resigned in the wake of an extramarital affair with a man. It wasn’t “I’m gay.” And it wasn’t simply “I screwed up.” It was an announcement of a new category, a new identity, a phrase that artfully summarized a new social consciousness in the past year.
We saw many images reflecting that new consciousness over the last twelve months. In retrospect, it might even turn out to be the most significant year in the history of the American gay civil-rights movement. I’ll never forget the spontaneous—and subsequently revoked—civil marriages in San Francisco. I knew they were a risky proposition; I knew they were illegal; but the actual sight of real couples achieving their dream of equality—if only momentarily—was moving beyond words. And then there were the long-planned, actual legal ceremonies in Massachusetts: the explosion of joy in Cambridge as newlyweds came out of City Hall just after midnight the day it became legal. And then there were those long, quiet, determined lines in the rain in rural Ohio in November, as conservative voters insisted on stripping gay couples of any legal protections in one swing state. Ten other states followed—by massive margins. A bill has even been introduced into the California Legislature designed to remove all legal protections from gay couples. In Virginia, private contracts between gay spouses could be rendered invalid. Which image will eventually describe the reality? We don’t know. But McGreevey’s phrase was a smart attempt to claim rhetorical ground.
After all, “gay American” is designed to sound like “African-American.” It insists on the fixed identity of a group of citizens. And it celebrates their public citizenship: These people are as American as they are homosexual, and their homosexual orientation is as unremarkable a feature as the color of someone’s skin. Yes, it conflates patriotism with homosexuality. And why not? As a phrase, it’s the inevitable consequence of the reasoning in recent Supreme Court decisions such as Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas, in which the logic of protecting a class of citizens from unreasonable discrimination gained ground, thanks largely to Republican-appointed justices. In blue America, and in the big cities in red America, this identity is increasingly understood and accepted. It is even close to becoming boring.
But this identity is precisely what many members of the resurgent religious right dispute. They profoundly disagree that homosexuals exist as a fixed category. For them, gay people are merely heterosexuals who are disturbed, disordered, or merely perverse. For them also, the meaning of America is exclusively heterosexual. I should know. Each day, I get dozens of e-mails—some hateful, many more dismissive, others deeply angry that homosexuality should even be considered a topic for public discourse. Remember the outcry because John Kerry mentioned Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter in the last presidential debate? What was to me a factual banality was for many an outrage.
Hence the need not merely to ban such legal protections in the various states but to amend the Constitution to effectively bar any protections for gay couples, to insist that homosexuals are not Americans in any profound sense, that they live here subject to the approval of the overwhelming majority. In his own awkward, haphazard remarks on the subject, the president echoed this language. He said he believed that America should be a “welcoming society” with respect to homosexuals. From where would they be welcomed? Aren’t they already here, paying taxes, like everyone else?
In a year when the legitimization of gay relationships accelerated across the globe—from Canada and Spain to Britain and Israel—America stood apart with its fierce resistance, despite its early championing of marriage rights in Hawaii. Yes, we have civil marriage already in one state. Yes, this was the country that pioneered the gay-rights movement. Yes, this is the country where in big cities, gay life and culture enjoys a strength and vitality and openness still rare across the rest of the world. But this is also a country in which the phrase “gay American” is not yet an empirical statement, but a moral claim.