Since Barack Obama declared his support for marriage equality, the response so far has been one big yawn. Most independent and moderate voters say the decision makes no difference, and Republicans can't bestir themselves to growl at the gays. Obama might have given the green light to two dudes on a wedding cake, but so far cats and dogs aren't sleeping together. It looks like the republic will hold.
But Obama's not the only Democrat who came over the fence from the wrong side of history. As a campaign consultant, I helped elect congressmen who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and cosponsored the Federal Marriage Amendment, in effect going along with marital segregation to get along in politics. I told myself that it was my job to elect Democrats, and it was their job to change the world. I gritted my teeth through the separate-but-equal fiction of civil unions, and when Obama made his announcement, my first thought was about how my clients might be hurt by this issue. On the central civil rights issue of my generation, I have not covered myself in glory.
When I was a young man, I would have judged myself harshly. I used to hate politicians such as the late Bob Bullock, the late icon of Texas Democratic politics, for a similar reason. When I moved to Texas in the early 1990s to work for Gov. Ann Richards, I was told that Bullock, then the lieutenant governor, had voted for 11 pro-segregation bills when he served in the Texas House in the 1950s. When I heard that, I formed a hardened opinion of the man. Bullock was on the wrong side of history. Much later in life, I found out that Bullock played a key role in making it possible for blacks to win seats in the legislature in the 1970s, forcing me to reconsider how I viewed the man's career.
The arc of history is long and bends toward progress, but it usually starts in a bad place. Former congressman Chris Bell knows this, because he went through his own reevaluation on gay marriage. "I was pleased and certainly understood where he [Obama] was coming from, because I do think it has been an evolution for a lot of people, including myself," he said recently.
Bell's first campaign was for an at-large seat on the Houston City Council in 1995. "My very first fundraiser was at a gay friend's home," said Bell, where he remembers getting a question about marriage equality. Before he could answer, one of the hosts cut off the Q-and-A. "Someone pulled me over and said, 'You just have to stay away from that issue. There's not even agreement within the gay community on that issue. It's lethal,'" Bell recalled.
It was a different time, but that's what some folks said about segregation. Had he been allowed to answer it, "I think I would have said I was opposed to it," Bell said. "That was before we had any discussion about civil unions. Back then the big issue was domestic partner benefits for city workers. That was considered radical."
Bell ran for Houston Mayor in 2001 on the same ballot as a local referendum to repeal the domestic partner benefits. When the issue came up at candidates' forums, he proudly defended his votes in favor of the law, thinking the issue was a sure winner. He was wrong, and both he and the law lost badly on Election Day.
"Then, all of a sudden, I wind up in Congress, and people are talking more and more about gay marriage and civil unions," said Bell. Civil unions seemed like a good idea, he said, but not gay marriage.
As long as I've known him -- and I worked on his mayoral race, managed his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, and consulted for his subsequent state senate run -- Bell had always sincerely supported LGBT equality but stopped short when it came to marriage. "When you grow up and marriage means one thing," said Bell, "and you're being asked to think about it in a completely different context, it takes some time to get your arms around that."
After Bell left politics in 2008, his views on marriage equality started changing as rapidly as the world around him. He learned that gay and lesbian marriages split up less often than heterosexual ones. His friends attended gay weddings out of state and told Bell how touching and, well, normal it all seemed. Soon Bell had decided that "what's fair for the straight community is fair for the gay community, as well," and in 2010 he spoke at the wedding of his former congressional chief of staff, John Michael Gonzalez, to his longtime partner. "By the time they got married, it was icing on the cake, I guess," said Bell.
Bell is like thousands of other Democrats out there who don't get to explain their change of heart on The View, stuck with a public record that puts him at odds with his own feelings, not to mention future generations.
"Young people just don't understand what we're talking about. That kind of bigotry is absolutely foreign to them," said Bell. "The confusion will be why it was such a big issue back in the day."
The parallels to racial integration are unmistakable, and Bell sees "some parallels there," though he qualified, "It wasn't like I was George Wallace, standing in the door of the school."
"I didn't really know that you needed marriage to have equality. Now it sounds pretty stupid to say that," he said. "This day and age, you can't imagine someone taking a stand against someone for the color of their skin. Folks will look back and maybe see some of this in the same light."