On Portman’s Epiphany (Commentary on Marriage Equality from a Lesbian Lawyer)

Karen L. Stewart



(March 21, 2013) -  It was my intention to prepare state and federal income tax returns this morning for my partner, Janice, and me.  As the lawyer in the family, I get stuck with this chore every year, which, needless to say,  has a profoundly negative effect on my enjoyment of the vernal equinox.  No one likes to do taxes, but my job is especially vexing  because the federal government and the state of Wisconsin have “defense of marriage laws,” also known as “DOMAs.”  Since they refuse to allow us to marry or to recognize our Canadian marriage, we have to file our taxes as “single.”  But we are not single.  In fact, we are registered as Domestic Partners under Wisconsin law, which is as close as they will let you get to the “M” word here in America’s Dairyland.  We live as an economic unit, yet we are forced to figure our deductions as if we were not. In several areas, we are taxed at higher rates than our married peers. So what should be one federal and one Wisconsin return become four. Two of the four are filed according to who can take the deductions this year.

 And it’s just a good thing I’m a lawyer, because otherwise we would be paying a CPA to figure all this out for us.  It’s just one of the many unequal and ridiculous things we have to negotiate all the time, apparently to “defend” the marriages of heterosexuals, whose relationships are considered “better” than ours and whose marriages would completely disintegrate if same sex couples were allowed to marry, or so the absurd lie goes. 

 So this morning, I was confronted by two headlines on Huffington Post.  The first said that C-PAC conceded that “the war on same sex marriage is over.”  The second said that Hillary Clinton now says she supports marriage equality.  The former is much more surprising than the latter, but I can’t help seeing the irony that Hillary took so long to say what has been the position of her own party for quite some time.  Of course, she may be a bit embarrassed that her husband signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which helped create this mess in the first place.  And although Bill has taken it back and now supports marriage equality, some of us with long memories cannot forget what he did to us, to those of us who supported him with our money and our votes.  (I even have a button, acquired during the 1992 election cycle, that says, “I’m for Hillary’s Husband.”)

 By 1996, Bill Clinton was in deep doo-doo.  He was running for re-election (ironically, against future Viagra-man, Bob Dole) and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, complete with blue dress, hovered like a dark cloud.  Bill had an image problem.  The person pushing DOMA was fellow serial adulterer, Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House.   The irony was so thick you could cut it with an O. Henry. If Clinton vetoed the bill, the Republicans would use it to paint him as “against marriage,” which, given his history, could have sunk him politically.  So Bill signed the legislation privately,  in the dead of night, without the fanfare of a signing ceremony.   He didn’t hand out any Presidential pens.  He didn’t have any right wing bigots standing in the background, smiling and applauding or chanting “We hate queers.”  When you take away the civil rights of Americans, it’s less upsetting to the country if you sneak.  So Bill snuck.  We have been living with the effects of his nefarious deed now for the past 17 years. 

 Perhaps it is memories of these dark days that have kept Hillary out of what has recently become the political mainstream.  I don’t know.  The thought of what must be swirling around in Hillary Clinton’s psyche is frightening.  I have enough problems of my own, so I just can’t go there.

 But in recent days there has been an explosion of favorable news on the marriage equality front, specifically the public epiphany experienced by “formerly” anti-gay U. S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio).   After learning that his son is gay, he did a complete 180, claiming that learning of  his son’s sexual orientation,  
“. . . allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years,” and that “the overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible and the fact I believe we are all created by our maker has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue.” He added that, “. . .all of our sons and daughters ought to have the same opportunity to experience the joy and stability of marriage.” 
 Well, my, my.  Forgive me, reader, if I am not left totally breathless by this pronouncement. 

Because although I welcome the fact that Portman now supports marriage equality, it is obvious that his support is for his son, not for the rest of us.  In Portman’s case, our success is collateral only, sort of a  reverse “collateral damage.”   In other words, the son of Robert Portman should be entitled to marriage equality, but the daughter of Virgil Stewart (me),  really should not.  I just get it because he does.  I suppose Portman is trying to be a good father to his son, although one wonders why it took him two years after his son came out before he changed his position. 

 Portman’s epiphany exposes a catastrophic failure of empathy.  If it is impossible for him to imagine marriage equality absent a gay son, is it also impossible for him to envision what it might be like to be someone other than a rich, white, privileged heterosexual male?  And I am afraid that it is impossible for him.   He is not alone by any means.  Such failures of empathy seem to have become epidemic since the dawn of this millennium.   This is very bad news for the country, because a significant number of its leaders clearly have no idea what it might be like to be other than a rich, white, privileged heterosexual male.
 It seems to follow, in right wing politics, that positions can magically transform, depending on whose ox is gored.  Case in point:  the Darth Vader of millennial politics, Dick Cheney, found a place in his heart for marriage equality because he has a lesbian daughter, Mary.  Were this not the case, I think we can all guess what his position on the issue might be.

 It is also interesting that, in the same week when Portman changed his position, House Speaker John Boehner publicly stated that he could “not imagine ever” supporting marriage equality.  And then there was the shocked disbelief to Portman’s comment, emanating from the lungs of anti-gay GOP Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who once proudly announced on the floor of the Senate that there had never been “a homosexual relationship in the recorded history of my family.”  Really?  The recorded history?  Please.  Are there documentaries? 

 The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument in the two marriage equality cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry, No.12-144, and U.S. v. Windsor, No. 12-307, at the end of March.  It is likely that the Court will announce its decisions in June.  It is also likely that the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition Eight will be found unconstitutional, given the fact that all federal circuit courts that have ruled on the issues have so found.  The Supreme Court has long held that marriage is a fundamental right.  Where fundamental rights are involved, the state must show it has a compelling interest in upholding the law in question.  There can be no such showing in either case.  In fact, there can be no showing at all. Any first year law student with one scintilla of intellect and a willingness to apply elementary constitutional analysis will tell you the same. 

 It is time that we call this charade what it was and is: a way to win votes for Republicans by putting issues on the ballot that would inflame evangelical Christians and drive them to the polls to “vote out the queers” and incidentally “vote in” the Republicans who clued them in on the “Gay Menace.”  It happened in Kentucky in 2004, when voters amended the Kentucky Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, and reelected George Bush in the process.   The Republicans would gladly sell out the civil rights of LGBT citizens to garner votes for the Cowboy President.

 And now that a Supreme Court ruling is imminent, and because politicians of most political stripes have long recognized this type of political pandering to religious bigotry has been an unconstitutional burden on people like me who did nothing but play by the rules, they are suddenly filing amicus curiae briefs in droves, reversing themselves.  Well thank you, I guess.
 But is it just that easy for you?  Was it okay for you to entangle my life in absurd legal realities for decades, then later “decide”  you were wrong, reverse course and pretend all those decades of the vilest of de jure discrimination never happened?  Well, it did happen.  It happened to me.  And it is still happening, right this minute.    Can’t you at least say you are sorry, for Jesus’ sake?  Something like, “I’m sorry for all the unnecessary pain I have caused honest American citizens for no reason?” for example. And then if you are truly sorry, can’t you set about undoing all the laws that harm LGBT citizens that you admit are legally and morally bankrupt?

 The people who voted in DOMA and its state equivalents are the same Republicans who would cut school lunches and food stamps and Medicare and Social Security and a myriad of other laws that strengthen our country.  They will tell you that taking care of the poor and elderly is a sign of weakness, but they are wrong.  It is a sign of our nation’s strength and moral character, not a cross to bear.

 Similarly, marriage equality is a sign of our nation’s strength, not its weakness. And I am damned tired of hearing otherwise.  Now, let me get going on those taxes. . ..