03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Lessons of Maine

The defeat of same-sex marriage in Maine is a real disappointment for those of us who believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is the most important civil rights issue of our time. We must remember, though, that changing hearts and minds takes time. Only twenty-five years ago, the very idea of same-sex marriage would have seemed preposterous to almost all Americans. Today, it is a serious issue that closely divides us. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are still hanging on by their fingernails, but the writing is on the wall.

Only a decade ago, 27 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriage. Today, 40 percent of Americans hold that position. Fifteen years ago, there was no state in which 40 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Today, 40 percent or more of Americans endorse this view in 24 states. In every state but Utah, support of same-sex marriage has increased substantially over the past fifteen years. Moreover, there is a clear generational divide. Whereas only 32 percent of Americans over 65 favor same-sex marriage, 59% of Americans between 18 and 29 embrace this view.

Much of this progress has come about as gays and lesbians have come out of the closet. For centuries, gays and lesbians had to hide a fundamental part of their selves, both in shame and to avoid persecution. Unlike other oppressed groups, like women and blacks, gays and lesbians could evade discrimination by leading secret lives. But the price of such evasion was truly awful. Not only did they have to deny an essential part of their own identities, but they were unable to play a meaningful role in the political process. Because blacks and women could not evade discrimination by masking their identities, they had no choice but to be public, and this enabled them to work openly for political and legal change. Gays and lesbians, however, were caught in a double-bind. The need and ability to hide who they were made it impossible for them publicly to assert their rights.

It was only when gays and lesbians courageously stepped out of the closet that real change began. That change came about not only because they could become active politically, but also because people came to realize, sometimes to their shock and dismay, that their children, their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers were gays and lesbians. Despite the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, in this instance familiarity has bred sympathy, understanding and respect. And that process of recognizing and then embracing our common humanity will surely continue.

But to say that the future is inevitable is not to say that the future should not be now. Every day, members of the gay and lesbian community are degraded, denied equal rights, and subjected to indignities by what is still, unfortunately, an unthinking and callous majority. Like women and blacks, gays and lesbians shall overcome. But, as with women and blacks, sooner is better than later.

What is most missing now in the movement to achieve equality in America is courage among our political leaders. Even the leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination were unwilling to say that they supported same-sex marriage. This is shameful. And it is especially shameful that our President remains silent. Barack Obama the politician may find it expedient to hedge his position, but Barack Obama the man knows, he must know, that this position is morally wrong. It is time for him to say so, and it is time for him and other political leaders across the nation to step up on this issue and lead. That, after all, is what leaders do.

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