What shocked me certainly wasn't the concept of gay marriage. What shocked me was that this subversive image appeared on the Jan. 6 cover of The Economist.
For those unfamiliar with the publication, The Economist is hardly a radical rag. Published in London since 1843, the weekly magazine is a model of stiff-upper-lip British reserve. It advocates a cold-blooded, laissez-faire capitalism and is filled with useful news about restless third-world nations where a gentleman of means might want to set up in business. Tory in perspective,The Economist cultivates a wry, dry editorial tone whose genteel uniformity is emphasized by the utter absence of bylines.
Yet despite its reputation as a conservative bastion, the magazine is not ideological as a rule. It is, rather, icily pragmatic. And that pragmatism has led the editors to conclude that "there is no compelling reason to exclude homosexuals from marriage, and several compelling reasons to include them."
It's an argument that probably wouldn't go over very well in Maine, at least not in the current political climate. Last November, when the fight over the anti-gay rights Question 1 was going on, the issue of gay marriage was never raised by those who might advocate it. Instead, the specter of lesbian and gay male couples being joined in matrimony was conjured up only by Carolyn Cosby and her cronies, as an example of the dreaded "special rights" that homosexuals might want to claim if they weren't stopped, and soon.
Of course, marriage to the one you love hasn't been a special right in our society for an awfully long time - if you're heterosexual, that is. Nonetheless, this is one issue that really gets anti-gay bigots in a lather. Such marriages would undermine traditional families, they argue. They'd destroy the morals of our nation. They'd be an affront to God.
Advocates of same-sex marriage can be equally emotional in defense of the concept. So reading the cool-headed arguments in favor of queer unions in The Economist was instructive. "Traditionalists . . . are wrong to see gay marriage as trivial or frivolous . . .", the lead editorial opines, noting that married people are as a rule physically healthier and more financially secure than singles. "Homosexuals need emotional and economic stability no less than heterosexuals - and society surely benefits when they have it."
The editors also point out that gay people all over the world are less willing than at any other time in history to deny or conceal their sexual orientation. As a result, the magazine warns, "For society, the real choice is between homosexual marriage and homosexual alienation. No social interest is served by choosing the latter."
A related article in the same issue documents the growing trend of open homosexuality - both male and female - around the globe. Gay rights groups have recently sprung up in Pakistan and Bolivia, Slovenia and Sri Lanka, Portugal and South Korea. The ubiquity of out gay men and lesbians, the article argues, is rapidly turning homosexuals into "a very ordinary minority," not unlike left-handed people.
Indeed, the appearance of this article in The Economist shows just how mundane homosexuality has become in the last 20 years. It is inconceivable that the headline "It's normal to be queer" would have shown up in any mainstream publication anywhere in the world in the 1970s. But that's just the headline some proper Englishman or woman wrote for the article in question.
The change has come about for many reasons, most of them having to do with the courage of individual gay men and lesbians who have stood up and proudly told the world who they are. The AIDS epidemic, sadly, has also played a role in proving to society at large that gay people are everywhere - in every family, workplace and government body. Now that the secret is out of the closet, the forces of capitalism have decided it's safe to try to make some money in the gay market. Out, a glossy, sophisticated gay and lesbian magazine, has been able to attract more than a few big-name corporations as advertisers, for instance. That wouldn't have been possible just a few short years ago.
But obviously the wider visibility and acceptance of gay men and women is fueling the bigoted rage of narrow-minded fundamentalists around the country. Hate crimes are on the increase. Anti-gay referendums have blossomed from coast to coast. Citizen groups have organized to boycott companies - like Disney - that offer benefits to same-sex partners.
But all these efforts have the desperate, anxious quality of rear-guard actions. It is precisely because homosexuality is becoming more widely accepted that the forces of intolerance are fighting so hard. They're on the defensive, and it shows: Witness Carolyn Cosby's laughable charges of voter fraud on the Question 1 vote. Anti-gay referendums have lost more times than they have won. In Hawaii, a court case might soon legalize same-sex marriage in that state; the pressure on other states to explicitly recognize or explicitly reject such marriages wouldn't be far behind.
My guess is the scales will one day tip in favor of gay marriage. As the gentlefolk at The Economist have argued, it's only practical.
Sarah Goodyear is CBW's editor.