Like It Or Not

With same-sex nuptials in the air on the eve of his vacation, George W. Bush rode to the rescue : and not a moment too soon. The White House even beat the Vatican to the punch in announcing that the president is "strongly committed to protecting and defending the sanctity of marriage." The only question is: Where does our super-husband-in-chief start? So much marital sanctity to protect, so little time.

The cultural signs are not aligned in Bush's favor. Witness those eulogists nationwide who fell over themselves to salute Bob Hope's 69-year union, willfully ignoring what the Los Angeles Times referred to as "the reports of his many infidelities over the years." On the Today show, Katie Couric, like all her peers, celebrated the Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn romance as "one of the greatest love affairs of the past century." But the very book prompting her accolade, A. Scott Berg's Kate Remembered, says that Tracy was not only a marathon adulterer but cheated on Hepburn too, and struck her.

Then again, five of the six non-fiction books Americans are reading most, according to Sunday's New York Times bestseller list, titillate us with marriages in need of a sanctity makeover : including Hillary Rodham Clinton's Living History and Edward Klein's The Kennedy Curse. For historical context, there's Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin, documenting the great man's common-law marriage, his illegitimate son and his seemingly endless flirtations with young women just this side of jail-bait.

Poor Bush. No sooner had he opened his mouth than Americans ran out en masse last week to see American Wedding, which begins with a young man proposing marriage as his pants sink to his ankles. A towering white wedding cake is festooned with pubic hair soon after, but not before we are treated to a beautiful shot of the Stars & Stripes in all their glory. Ah, marriage American style, 2003 : so patriotic that it is suitable for wrapping in the flag even when the prospective bride (rather than the groom) is kneeling during the proposal.

Perhaps the president has what it takes to restore sanctity to our conjugal landscape; but he can't do it alone or even with just the help of his political allies. Somehow, William Bennett's condemnation of extramarital sex to Tim Russert two weeks ago did not gain in moral authortity just because he's rubbed shoulders with such sinners while playing the slots in Las Vegas. And with friends like Rick Santorum, the family-values Republican senator from Pennsylvania, does marriage need any enemies?

"It's not to affirm the love of two people : that's not what marriage is about," he argued forcefully on Fox, agreeing with John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who had previously said, "Marriage is an institution between men and women for the purpose of having children and procreating." Never mind that Kerry himself is in a post-procreation second marriage.

No, there's only one hope for marriage in a country where the divorce rate remains sky-high, a third of children are born out of wedlock, and Kobe Bryant can be presented the 2003 Teen Choice Award as favorite male athlete two weeks after his public confession of adultery (if not rape): Gays must come to the rescue. And you know what? They have.

"Gays are the only people left who want to get married," Bill Maher says. That isn't quite the case; but they may be among the last who believe so much in the institution that they will fight to be a part of it rather than battle to get out of it.

We are in the midst of an historical change that couldn't have been imagined a mere two months ago. When scholars like David J. Garrow called the Supreme Court's June 26 Lawrence vs. Texas decision as significant as the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education, that seemed as over the top as the Tony Awards kiss. The few remaining sodomy laws were cruel anachronisms, and who didn't expect them to be overturned? But Justice Antonin Scalia, in his angry dissent, turns out to have been right on one point: The court's legal logic did instantly point the way to same-sex marriage. It's in play, and possibly on a fast track, no matter what Washington politicians have to say about it.

"I am more optimistic about the steady decline in opposition to same-sex marriage than I am about race relations," says George Chauncey, the University of Chicago historian who was the lead writer of the historical brief that weighed heavily in the majority Lawrence option written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "It is still such a fundamentally segregated society racially, while more and more Americans have gay people in their families," Chauncey says. "The battle clearly has been won in favor of gay visibility.

The index of that victory (and its speed) can be found in popular culture. It took more than a decade after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education for Hollywood to muster Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), and far longer still for interracial marriage to make it to prime-time TV. By contrast, the avalanche of same-sex-fixated entertainment actually preceded the Lawrence decision: a reflection of the increasing reality within the mainstream American marketplace where Hollywood harvests its profits.

But it is the content of the new gay shows, rather than their quantity or quality, that points most of all to marriage. Though they can be as sentimental and simplistic as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, entertainment featuring gays often reveals more confidence in the idealistic notion of marriage than the straight counterparts have. Next to HBO's Sex and the City for instance, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy could be The Brady Bunch. In one recent episide of this runaway Bravo hit, the Fab Five didn't just provide their straight guinea pig with the usual fashion, cooking and interior decoration advice : the stereotypical expertise that makes the show offensive to some gay viewers : but instructed him in how to propose marriage.

As coached by the paternal gay helpers, the straight guy's proposal over dinner, with its earnest professions of lifetime devotion, was far more respectful of marriage as an institution than the parallel scene in American Wedding. Even in the new (and idiotic) companion series on Bravo, Boy Meets Boy, the man looking for his dream date is on a quest to settle down in monogamous bliss.

In the pilot of It's All Relative, a sitcom set for ABC this fall, a male couple is seen in bed. But they're not go-go boys; they're the drab, churchgoing parents of a college-age daughter in love with the son of an Archie Bunkeresque Irish Boston barkeep. As the show's Edith Bunker says to her husband after meeting their prospective gay in-laws, "We're going to have to figure out how to get along with these people. Someday we may be sharing the same grandchildren."

In this respect, It's All Relative is far more attuned to what's actually going on in Boston than is the Vatican, which proclaimed in July that gay adoption "would actually mean doing violence" to children. (This directive was handed down, incredibly, only days after the Massachusetts attorney general delivered his [scathing] report on the epidemic of violence done to children within the church.)

A Boston Globe poll found that a majority of Massachusetts residents supported gay marriage at a moment when the state's highest court was preparing to rule on whether to legalize a form of it. The national polls are not quite that high, but they're close, with opposition to same-sex marriage ranging from 49% to the upper 50s. (The opposition melts away considerably among those under 29.)

A result is not merely hysterical bombast about how the "slippery slope" of same-sex marriage could lead to a legalization of incest, polygamy or worse. Other arguments sound similarly desperate. Last weekend, a representative of the Family Research Council was reduced to challenging the legitimacy of the courts : at least until CBS' Bob Schieffer reminded her that the same argument was made by those who resisted black civil rights.

Others who argue that child-rearing requires make and female parents, suggest that straights and gays marry one another : a somewhat less-than-slam-dunk case to make now that Liza Minnelli is on the loose again. Then there are those who in 1992 cheered Dan Quayle's argument thatTV's Murphy Brown was unfit to raise children. They must now illogically argue that the single mothers they once vilified are preferable to two-mom or two-dad households.

As Bush went off to his Texas ranch, even Conservative Republican senators like Don Nickles and George Allen were backing away from administration mutterings about a constitutional amendment to block state actions on gay marriage : a view consistent with that of Dick Cheney, the father of a lesbian, during the 2000 campaign.

In just over a year, Bush will come to New York to appear arm-in-arm with Rudy Guliani, who famously bunked for months with a make couple of ten years' standing during the raucous breakup of his own second (of three) marriages. Should this {Republican} convention take on gay marriage, it will find itself "focused on a culture war instead of a war on terrorism," Says Patrick Guerriero, leader of the Log Cabin Republicans.

But either way, it's hard to imagine a more surefire premise for a hit TV show in America 2004!

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