This past week, on Tuesday, June 17, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced that his cabinet had approved a new national policy allowing homosexual couples, male and female, to be legally married.
This is just one more example of how much more grown up Canada is than its neighbor to the South. If you want other examples, see Canadas policies toward medical marijuana, greenhouse gases and the United Nations, and compare them to those of the current adolescents in the White House.
Homophobia is one of the great character flaws of the United States, which pretends to be an inclusive society, but which in fact has always preferred as little diversity as possible within its borders, except when its economically advantageous. If youre poor, black, Hispanic, or mentally challenged, the power structure in the U.S. has traditionally had only one use for you: to provide the rest of us with cheap labor. Would 19th Century U.S. capitalists have welcomed the Chinese or the Irish if they had demanded a living wage? Would 20th Century capitalists have permitted mass immigration from Mexico and Central America if they hadnt needed their crops picked and their lawns mowed for next to nothing? Tired, poor, huddled masses work cheap. If homosexuals promised to work as cheap, maybe our police, our politicians, and our judges would be more welcoming. Otherwise, privileged heterosexual Americans would prefer that gay people just go away, or pretend to be something else.
Okay, so Im painting with a broad brush here, but I dont think Im far off. Outside of Broadway (Nathan Lane), an occasional Massachusetts voting district (Barney Frank), and Hollywood (Ellen Degeneres), homosexuality is still a matter of discomfort, even to most open-minded U.S. citizens. If you dont think so, imagine the uproar that would ensue even in the most liberal northeastern cities if, in the next Harry Potter novel, our adolescent hero revealed that the true secret of his identity is that he is gay and in love with Ron.
Fundamentalist Baptists and puritans of other denominations, citing Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, claim that the Bible calls homosexuality an abomination punishable by death. Interpretations vary, and the Bible seems to talk only about male homosexuality, but the fundamentalist view is pervasive in this country, even among nonfundamentalists: homosexuality, they believe, especially between men, is icky and wrong, and the Bible justifies every attempt to stamp it out. As far as Im concerned, thats just more evidence that the Bible is out of date as a moral map.
(Traditional religious dogma, along with a history of poor education, also accounts for the fact that homophobia is a powerful force, not just among the privileged white elite, but among many minority groups in the United States--especially blacks and Hispanics--and among the poor. Gays are in the unique position of discomforting Americans of nearly all classes and races.)
There are people in the United States who not only want homosexuals to stay in hiding, they want them to stop being homosexual altogether. These people believe that gay sex should be outlawed and that decriminalizing it is a threat to family values and will lead to the legalization of bestiality, incest and rape. Really, they actually say that. In fact, George W. Bush has nominated some of these people to our federal courts. (See last weeks column about William Pryor, one such nominee.) Now the U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide the constitutionality of a Texas law that prohibits homosexual--and many heterosexual--sex acts in the privacy of ones own bedroom. Lets hope the court majority overrules the Scalia-Thomas know-nothings, discards the outdated mores of an outdated religious text, recognizes the right to privacy as real and necessary, and ushers the United States into the 21st Century.
But even if that happens, dont expect gay marriage to be on the agenda in U.S. legislatures anytime soon. Vermonts recent recognition of civil unions (but not marriage) between homosexuals is a step in the right direction, and now many U.S. gays will go to Canada, get married, and return to test their marriage rights in U.S. courts. But if recent history is any indication, U.S. courts, growing ever more Bush-conservative, will spit in their face.
Which is precisely why many, perhaps most, homosexuals still hide their faces.
Three weeks ago, a friend of mine--a colleague for ten years and one of my favorite people--was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. In his fevered delirium, he revealed to some of us that he has AIDS. Most of us who have known Matthew (not his real name) had long suspected he was gay. But in our workplace--a sports-oriented business with lots of jock types--homophobia has been an ever-fragrant presence. Ive since learned that many years ago, our then-CEO even tried to get Matthew fired, claiming he was a fag, but Matthews immediate boss, bless him, defended Matthew as one of our best workers. Matthew learned his lesson, though. During the decades he has worked with us, he has never mentioned his sexual orientation, and we havent asked. Even after letting us know last month that he has AIDS, he has still not said anything about homosexuality.
Maybe if he had said something earlier, he wouldnt be sick now. Maybe if he had felt free to be open about his sexual preferences, he would have also been free to have an open, monogamous relationship with a live-in partner. Maybe he wouldnt have AIDS now.
In the United States, its not just military policy, but pretty much the unofficial policy of society as a whole: We dont want to know if youre gay, and if you are, dont show it. But for some people, dont ask, dont tell isnt just a wrongheaded policy, its lethal.