Frank Rich, NY Times Columnist: THOSE of us left off the guest list could only fantasize about Rush Limbaugh’s nuptials last weekend. Now cruising into marriage No. 4 — an impressive total for a guy not quite 60 — Rush staged a lavish luau at the Breakers in Palm Beach. The revelers included what some might regard as the Rat Pack from hell — Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani, James Carville and Clarence Thomas. The scriptural readings remain a mystery. But we did learn the identity of the pop deity anointed as the wedding singer. That would be Elton John, whose last, albeit second-class, wedding was a civil union with David Furnish in 2005.
Why would America’s right-wing radio king hire an openly gay entertainer to star at his wedding? And why would one of the world’s foremost AIDS activists sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” for a gay-baiting provocateur who has trivialized AIDS and speculated that same-sex marriage could lead people to marry dogs? Sir Elton’s fee was reported to be a cool $1 million. Which goes to show that pop music and cash have the power to make even stranger bedfellows than politics.
June is America’s month for weddings, and were we so inclined, we could bemoan Limbaugh, an idol to the family-values crowd, for marrying a woman barely half his age. Alternatively, we could lament Al and Tipper Gore’s divorce, which has produced so many cries of shock you’d think they were the toy bride and groom atop a wedding cake rather than actual flesh-and-blood people capable of free will. But let’s refrain from such moralistic hand-wringing. The old truth remains: We never know what goes on in anyone else’s marriage, and it’s none of our business. Here’s a toast to happiness for the Gores and Limbaughs alike, wherever life takes them.
But there is a shadow over marriage in America just the same. The Gores and Limbaughs are free to marry, for better or for worse, and free to enjoy all the rights (and make all the mistakes) that marriage entails. Gay and lesbian couples are still fighting for those rights. That’s why the most significant marital event of June 2010 is the one taking place in San Francisco this Wednesday, when a Federal District Court judge is scheduled to hear the closing arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the landmark case challenging Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban. A verdict will soon follow, setting off an appeals process that is likely to land in the Supreme Court, possibly by the 2011-12 term.
When the former Bush v. Gore legal adversaries, Ted Olson and David Boies, teamed up to mount the assault on Prop 8, it was front-page news. But you may not know much about the trial that followed unless you made a point of finding out as it unfolded in January. Their efforts in this case, unlike the 2000 election battle, were denied the essential publicity oxygen of television. The judge had planned to post video of the proceedings daily on YouTube, but the Prop 8 forces won a 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling to keep cameras out.
Their stated reason for opposing a television record was fear that their witnesses might be harassed. But in the end the Prop 8 defenders mustered only two witnesses, just one of them a controversial culture warrior. That “expert” was David Blankenhorn, president of the so-called Institute for American Values. Blankenhorn holds no degree in such seemingly relevant fields as psychology, psychiatry or sociology. But his pretrial research did include reading a specious treatise by George Rekers, the antigay evangelist now notorious for his recent 10-day European trip with a young male companion procured from Rentboy.com. And Blankenhorn’s testimony relies on the same sweeping generalization as Rekers — that children raised by two biological parents are so advantaged that all alternatives should be shunned.
What was the unqualified Blankenhorn doing at the Prop 8 trial? Like Rekers, who had a lucrative history of testifying for pay in legal cases attacking gay civil rights, he also profits from his propaganda. Public documents, including tax returns, reveal that Blankenhorn’s institute, financed by such right-wing stalwarts as the Bradley and Scaife foundations, paid him $247,500 in base salary in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, and another $70,000 to his wife. Not a bad payday for a self-professed arbiter of American marital values who under oath described his sole peer-reviewed academic paper (from the University of Warwick) as “a study of two cabinetmakers’ unions in 19th-century Britain.” That the Prop 8 proponents employed him as their star witness suggests that no actual experts could be found (or rented) to match his disparagement of gay parents.
You can’t blame the Prop 8 advocates for wanting to keep Blankenhorn off camera. Boies demolished him during cross-examination. (Read the transcripts at equalrightsfoundation.org.) Another likely motive for opposing cameras at the trial was to shield viewers from the sympathetic gay plaintiffs — ordinary tax-paying Americans whose families, including four children, were often in the courtroom.
Gays are far from the only Americans still facing discrimination, but as Boies said when I interviewed him about the Prop 8 case last week, the ban on same-sex marriage “is the last area in which the state is taking an active role in enforcing discrimination.” And though some — including Elton John, of all people — have claimed that civil unions are tantamount to marriage and remedy marital inequality, that is a canard.
Domestic partnerships and equal economic benefits aren’t antidotes, Boies explains, because as long as gay Americans are denied the same right to marry as everyone else, they are branded as sub-citizens, less equal and less deserving than everyone else. That government-sanctioned stigma inevitably leaves them vulnerable to other slights and discrimination, both subtle and explicit. The damage is particularly acute for children, who must not only wonder why their parents are regarded as defective by the law but must also bear this scarlet letter of inferiority when among their peers.
Boies doesn’t dispute the consensus that the endgame in this case will most likely fall to Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s reigning swing justice. Kennedy wrote the eloquent majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the ruling that finally ended the criminalization of gay sex in 2003. But where he may come down in Perry v. Schwarzenegger is anybody’s guess.
What fuels Boies’s hope for a just resolution is his faith in America itself. “This country is a culture of equality,” he says. “We’ve got that baked into our collective American soul.” He observes that attitudes continue to change fast on gay rights and that the approval rate for legalizing same-sex marriage — up to 47 percent in a Washington Post poll in February — is far higher than the approval was for interracial marriage (20 percent) even a year after the Supreme Court ruled it legal in 1967.
It’s not news that same-sex marriage is a settled issue for most young people. But the growing adult acceptance of unconventional family models can be found in the phenomenon of “Glee,” the prime-time hit on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, no less, that unexpectedly became this year’s most watched new scripted series on television for the 18-to-49 demographic. “Glee” recounts the lives of students in a hypercompetitive show choir at an Ohio high school, and it’s addictive for many reasons that have nothing to do with sexual politics. But what’s exceptional is the way it mashes up different kinds of American families from week to week much as it mashes up musical genres ranging from vintage rock to hip-hop to Lady Gaga to show tunes in its performance sequences.
The leading teenage characters in “Glee” have single parents (both widowed), absentee parents and, in one case, two gay dads. The teenagers suffer, struggle and occasionally triumph like any others, but along the way we see how families reconfigured by death, divorce and sexual orientation can be as loving, nurturing and, yes, as dysfunctional as any other. The landscape is recognizable as the country we actually live in. Even if family-values zealots do retain the ability to prevent America from watching the Prop 8 trial, we’re lucky that the era when they could banish a show like “Glee” from network television seems to have passed.
Dramatically enough, “Glee” generated an unexpected real-life story last weekend to match its fictional plots. The Times’s Sunday wedding pages chronicled the Massachusetts same-sex marriage of Jane Lynch, the actress who steals the show as Sue Sylvester, the cheerleading coach who is the students’ comic nemesis. It’s a sunny article until you read that Lynch’s spouse, a clinical psychologist named Lara Embry, had to fight a legal battle to gain visitation rights with her 10-year-old adoptive daughter from a previous relationship. That battle, which Dr. Embry ultimately won, was required by Florida’s draconian laws against gay adoption — laws that were enacted during Anita Bryant’s homophobic crusades of the 1970s and more recently defended in court, for an expert witness fee of $120,000, by the Rev. Rekers of Rentboy.com renown.
We’ve come a long way in a short time, but as the Embry case exemplifies, glee for gay people in America still does not match “Glee” on Fox. Until the law catches up to the culture, the collective American soul should find even June’s wedding Champagne a bit flat.